A combination of Nostradamus, Dionne Warwick, and Miss Cleo began to wash across my spirit in recent weeks, but never so much as when I returned from my month-delayed vacation. I had this nagging feeling at work that things were not exactly working out with regard to the original intention for having me travel across the globe to take this job. After a few days of spending all of my hours at my uncomfortable desk in my sweltering rooftop office surfing the web looking for “best time killer sites,” I resolved that my days in Kabul were numbered.
I received an email from my manager that he needed to “have a meeting with me” and no further details were revealed as to the nature of this meeting. My mind was made up. Whatever the substance of this enigmatic meeting, I was going to resign, stating that I felt that my usefulness here had come to an end. The night before I began to pack my things in my hovel amidst the swarm of mosquitoes and the stench of my twenty-flush bathroom. The next day I had the generic-named “meeting” and received the news that would make a career-long, dedicated employee cringe, but rendered me barely capable of concealing bliss.
“James, I hate to do this, but due to changing priorities and budget constraints…”
Anyone who’s ever gotten the boot from a job knows this fill-in-the-blank spiel pretty well. With regret from my manager, I was getting laid off, thanked for all my work, told how much I was appreciated here and what an asset I was to Afghanistan, and that I would get a nice severance to pocket on the next convenient flight back to the States.
I couldn’t ask for a better outcome. I’m so ready to go home. I could spend an entire post griping about everything that was wrong with this project, how pointless UNESCO and the UN in its entirety are as institutions, and any number of things that were wrong with this experience. I think, however, that the many positive aspects of my three months in Kabul are worth noting (interspersed with occasional flippant snark, because, well that’s just me.)
a) The Afghan people with whom I’ve worked and socialized - This is clearly the first and most important “shout out.” I think it’s safe to drop a few first names: Saifullah, Abdullah, Waheed, Zaid, Razzaq, Mr. Rahmani, Quraishi, Razia, Khairullah, Askar, Tooryali, Samat, Miskeen Shah, Jawad, Tahir, Reza, Khyber, Abdulhai, Samir, Faisal, Emal, and any others that I may have forgotten.
I’ve gushed ad nauseam about how great the people are here. I need not go all philosophosizical about the political situation here or make predictions about how things are going to “turn out.” Everyone is looking at the year 2014 with the awe of a Y2K or Mayan calendar meltdown waiting to happen.
It’s a cottage industry within the Afghan intellectual community as well as among Western writers and pundits to play the future of Afghanistan like a Vegas casino game. Some do it well and with real intellectual cred (Dexter Filkins, Joshua Foust, and Antonio Giustozzi come to mind.) But at the end of the day, when the book deals are signed, and the self-important and superficial writers (Spencer Ackerman) proudly gloat when the article goes up on The Atlantic or Wired, it is the Afghan people who still have to live and work here.
I can make no predictions, but can only believe that the smart, motivated, and passionate Afghan population will do their best to make the country thrive, and I will think of them every day: the journalists, teachers, students, shopkeepers, businesspeople, translators, members of the police and military, drivers, cooks, the kids on the streets hawking scarves and trinkets, cab drivers, writers, office workers, and just about everyone else whose paths I crossed.
I am not exaggerating when I say that I had almost no negative interactions with average work-a-day Afghans in Kabul. I rode a cab yesterday and my driver was so delightfully pleasant and fun. The sincere enthusiasm he showed when bustin’ out his amateur English in his booming voice (AMREEKA! We…LOVE…AMREEKA!) I have to believe was sincere. Granted, my experience would probably have been different had I been a foot patrol soldier trudging through pro-insurgent turf in rougher provinces, but as far as this round goes, I have nothing but good things to say about my interaction with the good people of Kabul, and the optimist in me has to believe that the basic goodness of the people here will prevail.
b) My coworker Angela and other interesting folks in the same boat - Sometimes you work with someone who really “wows” you with their stories and experience, and you revel in their anecdotes. Angela is a feisty Canadian who’s been working in the international aid for decades. 65 years old, fit as can be, and no interest in retiring. To say that this woman has been everywhere is an understatement, and when she’s been in places across the globe, it’s typically been during times which would make the strongest soul quiver with apprehension. During the worst times of conflict in places like Sierra Leone, Liberia, East Timor, Somalia, and Kosovo, she was there leading trainings of troops and government officials in conflict resolution and gender issues. I learned so much from Angela on how to create effective training materials, lessons, curriculum, and their implementation. What I gained from her knowledge is immeasurable, and I will miss her greatly.
When I first arrived here I had a conversation with an extremely friendly and down-to-earth gentleman named Sam, a Uganda-born Canadian with a PhD in economics from the University of Washington. Over the course of many conversations over dinner, which were often the highlight of my day, I learned that this brilliant and modest man was close friends with the king of Bhutan and was instrumental in creating their economic idea of “Gross Domestic Happiness.” Oh, and he also happened to be one of the main architects of the peace settlement in Sri Lanka that ended their long and bloody civil war. I came to realize that I was frequently enjoying my leisurely meals with one of the most sought after and respected agricultural economists in the world, but he seemed more interested in sharing his pride about his son who is a brilliant math and physics student and one of the top high school track stars in Canada.
I really miss my buddy Mehboob, another coincidentally Uganda-born fellow, but from the Indian merchant class that was tossed out of the country by Forrest Whit…I mean Idi Amin. Mehboob was my partner in crime when we wanted to break the rules and run around Kabul on foot. A very passionate and interesting guy who has dedicated his career to public health and education issues, Mehboob was a critical player in bringing attention to the risks of HIV to minority communities in the UK, and the public awareness campaign that he led is still lauded as crucial in helping to contain the spread of HIV among poor immigrants. Without the adventurous spirit of Mehboob I would not have decided to thwart the ridiculous and confining rules of the UN and wandered about Kabul to experience the rich and bustling world of the day-to-day life in the city. I hope to catch up with him in London someday soon.
c) What I’ve learned and have come to appreciate and value - They say that if you can work here, you can work anywhere. We’ll see. I have no idea what I plan to do when I return to the States beyond sipping an ice cold beer while sitting by my pool. I do hope to parlay this experience into something interesting career-wise, and not just have some new stories to tell. My experience and interests remain in the field of education, and I assume that I will return to related work. I’ve often said that I would like to start my own school with some like-minded people, and that is not out of the realm of possibility. If so, I would like to find some way to continue my interest in Afghanistan and world affairs in general and direct those interests toward creating some type of teaching and learning curriculum or institution - perhaps a school that caters toward students with similar interests that develops a relationship with students in Afghanistan through cultural exchanges.
It’s a well-worn cliche, but I really DO value and appreciate the privilege of living in a free and open society that, despite its frequently mentioned flaws, does afford people the opportunity to, more or less, do whatever the hell you want if you are so inclined to take advantage of those opportunities. There are hundreds of Afghan students busting their tails competing for study opportunities in the USA where they can have access to teachers, classes, and materials that are up-to-date and necessary for them to pursue their heartfelt intellectual interests. I think that on the next trip I make to Half Price Books in Austin, before my leisurely browsing, I am going to take in the panorama of published works that I can choose from as I wish, and just marvel at that simple, but often taken for granted gift.
On a purely self-indulgent level, I am typing this and salivating at the chance to eat a massive plate of BBQ, drink as many cold draft beers as my tolerance allows, wipe off my trap with a paper towel, and wash up with perpetually clean running water. I look forward to driving my own car on clean, organized, paved roads and not complain about functioning traffic lights as I travel to well marked streets and houses with addresses. I will sit in my air-conditioned apartment and roll my eyes at shrill and hysterical political loudmouths on my large TV who think that the people with whom they disagree are equivalent to the Taliban while people I know who remain here have to worry about the real threat to their lives from the actual Taliban.
More than anything else, I look forward to reuniting with friends and family with whom I have only been able to communicate through phones and computers. I cannot begin to adequately express my love and appreciation for everyone back home who have been such a tremendous support. I’m flattered that people I know have taken the time to read my little screeds and musings on this blog, and seeing how many “likes” I received when I posted about my imminent return home really made me appreciate how many people out there care about my well-being. I love you all!
I don’t know if I will continue to write here, since I don’t think that I will have anything particularly interesting to observe for awhile, unless people want to read that I “woke up at noon and went to the coffee shop,” which, as I’ve said, is about the extent of my priorities for awhile. So, signing off for the indefinite future. Thanks for reading.
My dad is 82 and doesn’t own a scanner, so no photos, and no snarky links. Pure text homage. I topped up my cheap little cell phone to give dad a call Kabul to Philly to wish him a happy dad’s day. He’s always excited to hear from me, know that I’m safe, and hear about my adventures here. The palpable fascination I hear in his voice when I tell him about what’s going over here is always inspiring to regale him with tales of the fun and twisted that make up life in Kabul.
There’s no two ways about it - my dad is a saint. He is a remarkable man of impeccable character who instilled in me every character trait that I strive to uphold every day of my life (with varying degrees of success of course.) For every memorable anecdote I may be able to pull from my memory during the course of this writing, I know there are probably at least ten that I am forgetting, because the list of experiences and influential moments that have taken place over the course of being raised by the man whose name I share could fill volumes.
My dad is pure, Philly working class all the way - Kensington born and bred. He spent most of his career working in the office of a gritty factory on Aramingo Avenue among heavy machinery that processed chemicals and pressed out industrial metal products (perhaps an influence on my musical taste?) When I was 8 years old, I came home from school one day to find my grandmother waiting for me at my house. It was her job to tell me about the accident my dad had at work. My dad had gotten his hand caught under a pressing machine that crushed his hand and would lead to him having the top halves of three of his fingers amputated. And in the aftermath his attitude was, “Get me through this rehab so I can get the heck back to work!” No complaints, no self-pity, just readjustment to normal life with his dominant hand now reduced to mostly an index finger and thumb. Right back to work. Hardcore, dad. Hardcore.
After many years with this company, one day they told him he was no longer needed and was sent packing with less appreciation than Milhouse’s dad getting booted from the cracker factory. No complaints, no self-pity, no retirement. He took another job and drove his damn self from NE Philly but now instead of to Port Richmond all the way the hell out to Telford near Lansdale. Retirement didn’t suit the man even when he reached the age when he should have been lounging by the pool. Within months of retiring he went right back to work at a part time job that he kept into his late 70’s, much to the relief of my mother who was tired of watching him look out the window.
But that window gazing made up only short interludes between the astonishing volume of books that dad still to this day devours. My dad never finished college. He went into the navy right after graduating from North Catholic, translated morse code, and served on aircraft carriers near Greenland, before coming home marrying mom and going to work. He took classes at a number of local colleges, but never finished with a degree. No matter. My dad’s intellect towers over today’s most credentialed eggheads due to his life of self-education through his love of books. And this love is genetic for sure. I owe my love of learning and reading to the example dad set, and our trips to the NE Regional Library are well-remembered. He still takes walks there and checks out books.
Beyond reading, dad instilled in me a sense of cultural appreciation that still grows to this day. Knowledge of classical music - through dad. Who said to me, when I was ten, “We’re going to see this movie!” and next thing you know was sitting next to me at a screening of The Seven Samurai at the Ritz? Dad of course. Who brought me the book through which I learned all the states and their capitals? Well, you get the idea. Movies, books, Phillies games, algebra enrichment home-learning cassettes for Christmas, smart articles cut out and left on the dining room table…all you padre! Every, I mean EVERY, kid, should only be so lucky to be put on the path to a rich and rewarding life with such an amazing role model in life.
More than anything else that I appreciate from James Senior, is coming to realize how much he has for his entire life lived important values that display the meaning of being a decent person, to plain and simply, doing the right thing in life. From the earliest age my dad taught me that you don’t ask for money, you simply go over and shovel the elderly widow’s walk, period. And don’t you dare show any inkling that you may have acquired the slightest trace of anything that could be construed as prejudice or racism. When my elementary school integrated when I was in 4th grade and I watched kids in the neighborhood flee to the Catholic schools due to absurd and ugly racist beliefs, my parents delighted in the new multicultural milieu of their kid’s education. I scoff at the sanctimony of people who relish their self-appointed role of admonishing their “lessers,” and forcefully implementing policy about “diversity” just to hear themselves speak from on high. I learned what’s right and wrong about those issues from an early age from my parents, not from politicians.
In recent years, when my already well-established admiration of dear ol’ dad was thoroughly ingrained, I would become witness to an even greater and more thorough proof of all that I knew about what a great man James Daniels, Sr. is. In the mid-90’s my mother was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. It took a slow, steady, and inevitable toll on her over the course of about 15 years, but through it all there was one person who never showed an ounce of impatience in his dutiful role as caretaker and life-partner. Dad would find himself going from the “take your pill” reminder to primary caretaker, trying his best to be everything for his wife whose physical capabilities in even the most basic functions were deteriorating. He literally did everything for her which he was capable of doing, until it was taking too much of a toll on him as well.
Dad could barely contain the overwhelming guilt that he, a man pushing 80, felt about having to move mom to a nursing care facility. He was devastated. He wanted nothing more than to have mom at home and care for her, but he knew it was no longer possible. Second best had to do. He woke up early every day, drove from NE Philly to Huntington Valley, and spent the entire day by her side. When I had a chance to visit and see mom she would still manage to eke out a light-hearted jab to the effect of, “Oh I just can’t get rid of this guy!” Dad made this trip every day without fail for over a year. He passed on social outings and even holidays with family to spend every day with mom.
I returned home from deployment to Kandahar on March 12, 2011. I had been planning on a trip to Philadelphia some weeks after, but my sister called and said flat out, “Come home now.” I knew things were not good. I came home late March, made it to mom’s room, and let her hear my voice, letting her know that I’d made it home safely. She couldn’t speak, but she raised an eyebrow and a slight grin came across her face. I knew that she had “waited for me,” as everyone I know, even the least “spiritual” among my friends, has assured me. I went home and slept in the basement of the house in which I’d grown up and I woke up to the phone ringing at 7:30 AM and took the call.
I went upstairs and gently shook dad awake, “Mom passed away.”
And so there I was, embracing the sobbing man, shocked into sadness at the death of his beloved wife of 55 years.
Today is father’s day, and on this day, I feel perfectly free to be completely open and heartfelt in sharing why I celebrate this day with such fondness. It’s because it’s a day that honors, for me personally, the greatest and most important man I have ever known in my life. Much love to you always dad. Now go have a beer, and soon I’ll be joining you in one, my treat.
It’s been awhile, but I’ve just been tired at the end of every day. There is a certain Groundhog Day quality to your day-to-day existence from Sunday to Thursday. You wake up, go downstairs to breakfast, watch the Pakistanis snap and yell at the employees, and then get the call. Your conspicuous, armored SUV with the giant “UN” painted on four places has arrived. You either sit high in the saddle up front or you get crammed into the back, cargo-like section and get door-to-door service.
For some reason the UN deems this to be proper safety protocol for traveling around Kabul. A group of three well armed and determined loons could easily surround one of these traps and have themselves some easy pickings, but if your security detail finds out you actually walked 20 meters out in public on your own, they have a shit-fit on you. If you need or want to go anywhere, no matter how close it may be, you are required to call the driver on duty, have them pick you up, drop you off, and then come get you when you’re “done.”
I like all of the drivers that work for us. They’re good guys whose job consists of shuffling a bunch of foreigners around Kabul, and trust me, driving in Kabul is nothing I think I would ever want to have to deal with, least of all as a job. I keep my tasking of the drivers to the absolute bare minimum, mainly back and forth to work because everyone has to “go that way.” I would prefer to walk everywhere, and if need be, grab a cab if I needed to go somewhere a little beyond walking distance. You know, like normal people do.
My one coworker, the delightfully named Mehboob, whose company I really enjoyed had an adventurous spirit, so we just, quite frankly, broke these stupid rules and walked around everywhere, window shopped, haggled with the merchants, stopped to chat with random locals, and went about our business in this “war zone” as one would in any big city. It’s actually a really great city with a very walkable downtown and a never ending cast of characters who got a kick out of the tall geeky white dude in glasses who could actually speak a little of the language accompanied by the Uganda-born Hamid Karzai look-alike who speaks the king’s English. (Editor’s note - I’m obviously the latter of the two.)
One day we went to take a walk after work, and within a minute of turning right onto the main street in front of our guesthouse, Mehboob’s phone rang. It was our head of security, an extremely uptight former Afghan army guy who literally eats, shits, and sleeps “according to protocol.”
“I see you and James are walking on the street. Why are you walking? Where are you going? You know you are not supposed to walk.”
Like a late student explaining himself to the Dean of Students, Mehboob, an extremely well-educated, well-traveled, sophisticated gentleman, is now on his cheap Nokia trying to come up with some half-cocked story about why we dared to walk outside in public, while rolling his eyes and shaking his head at me. More than anything else, we were baffled at how Sergeant Tight Ass had seen us, and we began to wonder if UNESCO had implanted tracking devices into our phones or perhaps the backs of our skulls while we were sleeping. Rather than worry about IEDs, kidnappers, thieves or the dreaded “Taliban,” I’m now more concerned that someone from our security detail is going to see me on the street.
In the UN’s infinite wisdom, the organization fails to see how little good it does for its image by perpetuating the stereotype of the isolated troop of elite do-gooders with the bunker mentality. The more I work for the organization the more I see the point that its detractors make that the UN is a pretty useless organization that sits on top of a valuable piece of New York City real estate that could be put to better use if it ever stopped hosting 8th grade field trips.
Anyone who believes that the UN should or does carry any kind of authority in the world or has the capability of affecting any real change in the world is seriously delusional. The UN provides the auspices under which lifelong bureaucrats and academics get a chance to travel, write some papers that nobody reads, and make some bold statements about conflicts in the world that they have zero to little ability or will to stop. I’m certainly not going to deny that through a UN agency I was able to return to Afghanistan to work in a civilian capacity, and I’m not so self-righteous to deny that the money is pretty swanky. If I felt more free to get out and about, I’d be spending a lot more of that money in the local economy, but I don’t feel like burdening the drivers, and now I have the extra consideration that I might be “watched” by my own people.
When you do ride around in your official vehicle, your view in the morning is pretty much the same. People are opening their shops, hustling off to work, or sitting in traffic jockeying for position on the cramped, dusty, and perpetually under construction roads. When you turn off one of the main squares onto a busy commercial avenue (for Philly folks, think of the Germantown Avenue stretch heading southeast from Erie Avenue or perhaps Chestnut street during the Rizzo years) your scenery consists of a lot of anxious men hoping to get picked up for day labor. And then you pass them by in your version of the Popemobile, and you don’t even want to make eye contact because you feel like you’re being treated like some kind of precious royal commodity, and that you’re participating in some kind of paternalistic, neo-colonial exercise.
This is yet another eye-rolling contradiction and hypocrisy of the UN. You’ve got this organization that ostensibly offers a “voice” to every country in the world whereby the point of view of someone representing the government of Guinea-Bissau is given equal weight to that of someone representing Japan, and where a tinpot clown like Hugo Chavez is given a platform to speak as a “world leader.” Meanwhile the UN airdrops “experts” and “consultants” from the developed world into poor nations like a John Frum cargo cult, basically acknowledging that many of these fairly new independent countries still need the wise guidance and expertise of their global betters. And those global betters need an armored cocoon of protection, lest they fall prey to the “natives.”
At the halfway point of this gig, I’ve been happy and satisfied with many aspects of my experience here. My love for and interest in Afghanistan remains great and continues to grow, mainly through the opportunities I have to do real and meaningful work directly with the Afghan people that I’ve met and with whom I’ve developed friendships, especially with the incredibly fun, friendly, and incredibly hospitable young, smart Afghan people in addition to the seasoned veterans of the Afghan education establishment. The stories that I continue to hear about how the people who’ve worked against enormous odds to forge ahead and build the institutions of learning here remain an inspiration.
Just yesterday I sat in rapt attention listening to the head of curriculum in the literacy department describe how he and other educated refugees during the Taliban era would gather together and write out their own learning materials by hand to deliver to kids in refugee camps, taking care not to make a single mistake in a single math problem lest they waste one inch of space on a precious piece of paper. As long as I keep having encounters like this to maintain my perspective and to feel like what I’m doing here is actually valued and appreciated, I can overlook the often-Kafkaesque silliness of the UN establishment. Watching the teachers whose methods and knowledge that I helped improve get down on the floor and have fun with some cool activities, and then having a fellow UN savior-person knock on the door at the end of the night spot me a beer makes things worth the effort to do your best at what you’ve been tasked to do.
And exactly one week from today, I will finally get to take that elusive first vacation that I was promised. Three months to go.
Kabul is not the easiest place to live. I’m working on my third recovery from a bout of mystery illness of the innards which bears all the symptoms of giardiasis. This is a delightful infection by a cute little protozoan parasite and is also known by the nickname “beaver fever.” No word on whether the medical community is going to change that to “arcadia fever,” and I have no intention of using “I’ve got beaver fever” as a conversation starter. All I have for my trouble is a packet of antibiotics and the addition of the term “eh-sahl” to my Dari vocabulary for beaver fever’s most delightful symptom. I didn’t get a lousy t-shirt.
I’ll leave scatological eloquence to Rabelais, accept my temporary rice and yogurt diet, and revel in the fact that my work is finally starting to pay off. After a number of setbacks and shifting priorities, I now have the pleasure of watching our teacher-training workshop in action. The Japanese government should be proud that their money is being spent well. The trainees are really getting into the activities and seem really excited to add some new ideas to their repertoire.
No matter how many different opinions you hear from Afghans on a whole myriad of subjects, there always seems to be agreement on the most important ingredient to moving the country in the right direction - education. I’ve heard amazing and humbling stories from our trainees of how they managed to teach and learn through warfare, Taliban rule, and exile. Some of them risked their lives to set up their own little “schools” in tents, caves, and refugee camps.
It is absolutely maddening how cavalier and nonchalant people in the U.S. are about the opportunities we have to learn, in addition to how the teaching profession is often disparaged as the source of societal ills or as a career choice for “those who can’t.” I could easily go on one of my patented rants about people who view teaching as a cakewalk job. Haters talk about the hours of a school day and the oft-repeated mantra of “summers off” as reasons to see teachers as pampered and overpaid. These are often the parents of the worst kids who see school as a burden and a joke.
Yeah, I know, everywhere Krusty the Clown looks he sees teachers driving Ferraris. I challenge these teacher-haters to do the job for one week, but they have to have in class students like a certain senior I taught in a freshman math class, a complete idiot and a total 100% spoiled evil child to boot, who made her dad return her brand new sports car because she saw someone driving on I-35 in the same car of the same color.
Afghan teachers take their profession seriously, the good ones are highly respected, and they are proud of their role in their communities.
The government of Afghanistan has made the education system a top priority in the rebuilding effort of the country, and one can imagine the challenges they face when trying to get past decades of conflict that has wrecked so much of the institutional infrastructure. Dealing with an armed insurgency of ignorant zealots that poison schoolchildren and murder teachers doesn’t make the job any easier.
Afghan students, especially aspiring teachers, frequently complain about the lack of up-to-date textbooks in schools, many of which date to the era of the Soviet occupation, as well as the quality of the teachers who have been in their jobs too long and don’t seem to give a flying one about how well they do that job. In addition, I’ve heard some interesting anecdotes about teachers who were aware of the political parties or at least the political proclivities to which their students were loyal and used that as an excuse to play favorites with students. Sounds like a former colleague of mine at St. Joseph’s Prep.
The goal of the workshop that I helped to create is to reinforce good practices in teaching such as writing good objectives in lesson planning, devising a variety of learning activities, and the different levels and types of questioning and assessment. We have twenty teachers, nineteen of whom are men, with levels of experience ranging from two to thirty years. They’re a great crew - friendly, talented, and outgoing, and they of course love to practice their English as I do my Dari. It’s a mutual appreciation.
As of this writing, we’re halfway through the workshop. I’m looking forward to the “graduation” when we give out the certificates and wind down with a nice celebration, but I’ll be sorry to part ways. Everyone is going to be venturing out across the country to meet up with and mentor the facilitators that are currently teaching the literacy classes to the national police. We want our trainees to demonstrate and share the workshop with the people that are currently out in the field and pass along the activities and techniques. So basically you could call this a “training of trainers.” I personally would prefer to remove the middle layers and train the teachers that are going to have direct contact with the end users, i.e. the police who are in the classrooms, but everything is about the “mandate” and its “scope.” Go UN. How’s that ceasefire working, Kofi?
It’s shameful and patronizing that “good news” stories about Afghanistan are few and far in between. When a story is published in Western media about Afghans engaging in activities that we would consider “normal,” you can almost hear the journalist asking for his or her Pulitzer for discovering some diamond in the rough tale. Rod Nordland of the New York Times recently published an article about Strikers, the bowling alley that is a big hit in downtown Kabul.
Nordland gushes that “behind the black door in downtown Kabul is a place unlike any other in this city, even in the whole country,” and seems very proud of himself for delivering “that rarest of things, an Afghan good news story.” That’s an interesting take considering that Afghan Scene magazine has been covering the creative and vibrant side of Kabul for quite some time now, including the Strikers story.
I find it hard to imagine that Nordland could be so blind as to not notice that downtown Kabul is literally bustling with business and commerce, from restaurants and retail merchants to banks, construction, and high tech industry. Nordland and the New York Times crew could have done themselves a favor and checked out the awesome multimedia project Kabul - A City at Work.
Get out of your armored car, Rod, and stop patting yourself on the back for your great “discovery.” Perhaps the good news stories are “the rarest of things,” because you and the folks at the venerable Old Gray Lady don’t seek them out and write about them? As long as journalists like Nordland pluck a ripe piece out of thin air ever so rarely, they can continue to ensure that their worldy, sophisticated reading audience will smile warmly and say, “Wow, you see, those good Afghan people are just like us.” Granted, that mentality would still be a nice respite from the absolutely vile, racist, and vicious things that so many ignorant fools write in the comments sections of jingoistic blogs and news sites when they read the “business as usual” stories about Afghanistan.
The Strikers story is without a doubt a good story, especially when one considers the challenges of being a female entrepreneur in Afghanistan. Meena Rahmani is a bright, talented, and energetic businesswoman, but she is hardly alone. The stories of bright, talented Afghan women could fill volumes. I had the privilege of meeting Diba Hareer through the Afghan Intellectuals Network. This is a great organization of Afghan students who get together online to share ideas, debate current events, and to network for scholarship and study opportunities.
My friend Saifullah, an absolutely brilliant young man who is starting his freshman year at Yale University this fall, was nice enough to invite me to join AIN’s facebook page, and it was there that I offered to assist Afghan students who might need help with their essay writing or any information they might be interested in knowing about higher education in the United States. Diba asked me if I could help her with some of her essays, and in this way we have become online friends. If you see her on Facebook, say hi!
Diba is an incredibly friendly, smart, and motivated student currently studying in Canada, and she is without a doubt going to take the reins of leadership when she returns to Afghanistan. She was generous enough to allow me to share a speech she gave to a civic organization in Ottawa and I look forward to having her share more of her thoughts and stories (when she’s not busy with her studies!) Thank you Diba, and, as always, my best regards to you!
I am an international student at the University of Ottawa. I came to Ottawa from Afghanistan six months ago. During this time, I have met many Canadians and people from other countries in order to learn about their culture and their lives, and to tell them about my country, my culture and my life. Through our interactions, I have learned that most of my Canadian and international friends know little about Afghanistan. They mostly associate Afghanistan with the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, and this association makes them picture in their minds an unfortunate land of war with few resources and a lack of human rights.
I agree that Afghanistan is one of the poorest and less developed countries in the world. Only 13% of women and 34% of men are literate, and few have higher education. 75% of the girls are married under the age of 16. Only one in 10 girls completes high school. 85% of the women experience domestic violence. Over 68% of the people live below the poverty line. A large percentage of the world’s opium is cultivated in Afghanistan by the insurgent groups. Yet, it is important to stop and think,“Has Afghanistan been this way since it came to being? Why did it turn into the state it is today? What did Afghanistan look like some years back?”
The truth is that Afghanistan was not so long ago much different from the country you see on the news every night. Our cities bustled with economic activity, our agricultural regions produced a variety of fruits and livestock, many women attended university and worked in professional careers, and there was a vibrant cultural life of music and literature throughout the country. I must say that I wasn’t lucky enough to see these good days of my country, since I was born in a time of war. But it’s true that I have dreamt of it, and I have believed in the Afghanistan of forty years ago.
Afghanistan was in a civil war for almost three decades, from 1978 to 1995. The worst was yet to come.An extremist, radical, religious group called the Taliban then took over the government. They ruled my country from 1995-2001. They violated the human rights of Afghans, justifying these actions as a religious system of governing. Women were denied access to education, employment, health care and other basic human rights. I was one of the lucky ones who were able to get out of the country with my family. I lived and studied at a high school in Pakistan, and I continued my higher studies in Afghanistan after the fall of this regime.
The six years of Taliban rule destroyed the infrastructure and social life of our people. It also destroyed our women’s hope for living and the belief that they deserved the life of human beings. After 9/11, the United States invaded Afghanistan and removed the Taliban from the political arena. This began a time of hope for my country. We thought that things would change for the better. They actually did change in the years between 2001 and 2004. A large number of girls as well as boys were enrolled in schools. More and more women were working in different sectors in the government and in NGOs. When the United States attacked Iraq in 2003, the Taliban who were hiding in the mountains of Afghanistan and in the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan took this opportunity to reorganize themselves. They began to threaten the Afghan government and any civilians working with the government, and they fought against women’s education and employment. They burned schools, killed teachers, and threw acid on girl students’ faces because the Taliban wrongly believe that women’s involvement in society is against Islamic principles. Our government’s inability to respond effectively to these threats and their increasing corruption, as well as our neighboring countries’ support of Taliban, contributed to strengthening the Taliban.
Now, many people seek the solution to Afghanistan’s problems from outside the country. They think preventing our neighboring countries from interfering in our affairs and supporting the Taliban, as well as a change in the US policy from invasion to support of Afghanistan will help. While I acknowledge this, I have an eye on yet another force that could change Afghanistan completely. The media mentions the Taliban and Al-Qaeda as well as the opium, but it forgets to mention our youth. We are one of the youngest countries in the world: young people in the 18 to 25 age group make up 68% of our population.The majority of our population is under 40. The years of fighting among the political parties and warlords have taught our people to seek freedom and peace through education.
Private schools and universities have been established to help students gain education, these are still limited to the privileged. Being a post-war country, we need to promote access to, equality in, and quality of education for all. As a developing and traditional society, Afghanistan did not give much attention to girls’ education. Because of a high dropout rate, only 1 out of every 10 girls finishes school. It’s unfortunate that the government did not make a good investment in education. I admit that billions of dollars flowed into Afghanistan over the past 10 years, but it almost never reached ordinary Afghans or went to infrastructure building. It was spent on foreign military forces, on embassies, international organizations and, as one observer says, “corrupt contracts that ended up lining the pockets of a few Afghans and Westerners.” The geopolitical situation of Afghanistan is yet another reason for its instability and vulnerability to invasion, fueling civil conflicts and holding the country back from development. It will indeed be a long talk if I discuss the factors and the countries that cause the problems for Afghan society. But I would like to take this opportunity to talk about what I and we can do to contribute to a big change in Afghanistan.
I must say that it’s not just financial support that the Canadian and the western countries should provide for Afghanistan, but much more. I remember a Chinese proverb that I have known for many years. It says: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” And I say, educate the children and youth of Afghanistan build Afghanistan through education, and you will avoid insurgency in the region.
I am looking forward to working for the promotion of education in my country when I finish my studies. If we could help one child, one youth at a time, and provide them with knowledge, empathy and wisdom, they will spread it to others, so we will eventually have the whole nation educated and self-aware. This is how the change will emerge from the actions of Afghans and within Afghanistan.
Here, I would like to quote one of my Canadian friends who happened to write me an amazing statement in an email. She wrote: “One thing I have learned is that the Afghan people are superbly intelligent and resourceful; give them just a little bit of help, and they do the rest themselves, in imaginative ways we Westerners would never have considered.”
I agree with her on this statement and I think that a little support can make a huge difference for the future of Afghans and Afghanistan, turning us into a resourceful people and nation, able to take our place proudly in the international community.
“Now I rock a house party at the drop of a hat
I beat a biter down with an aluminum bat”
Like the bite of a tragic madeleine cake, the news of the death of Adam “MCA” Yauch of the Beastie Boys triggered a whirlwind of music-related memories and emotions. I have to confess that I heard Rhymin’ and Stealin’ on Licensed to Ill before I ever listened to Zeppelin IV all the way through to When the Levee Breaks, and I heard Eggman before I ever heard Superfly by Curtis Mayfield. I still think that Led Zeppelin is a pretty overrated band, but I acknowledge their place in rock and roll lore, and Levee is hands down their best song. In addition, I am now an absolutely fanatic fan of Curtis. Getting into Curtis was a launchpad to becoming a much more well-versed aficionado of da funk. I’ve been a huge lover of classic R&B and soul all my life since my mother and uncle were die-hard fans of all things Motown.
This was my first record player:
The turntable is a perfect fit for 7” 45 rpm singles, and my mom had a massive collection of singles by Little Richard, The Orlons, The Supremes, Jackson 5, The Crystals, The Four Tops, and just about every other group from Motown and the Philadelphia Sound. You could play 12” 33 rpm LPs since the record player had a setting for that speed. You just had to pull Mickey’s arm back a bit to accommodate the extra diameter. I realized this when I became the proud owner of my first album at the age of 8:
I also had the privilege of having two older sisters to whom I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude for owning and repeatedly playing a generous roster of amazing albums that were part of my musical education that began in the mid 1970’s. You can imagine the wide array of musical listening opportunities my fortuitous birth gave me.
By the time I got to high school in 1983, I thought that I was pretty well-versed in music for a 13 year old, and one of the highlights of my high school years was the opportunity to meet other musically-interested peers. My high school had some amazingly interesting characters from all across the Philadelphia metropolitan area, and when I returned years later as a teacher I was so happy to see that the Prep still attracted a nice cadre of twisted, unique, and creative individuals that were into “cool stuff,” especially music.
I feel sorry for people who look back upon their high school years as an angst-ridden and flesh cutting-inducing era of horror and tacky LiveJournal entries that would make even Morrissey slap someone and tell them to “man up.” I loved high school. I had great teachers, made great friends that were a welcome relief from the bullying Neanderthals in my neighborhood who wore stupidity like a badge of honor, and I look back with gratitude that I had a lot of great, formative experiences as a student at St. Joseph’s Prep, muggings on Septa and all.
There was nothing cooler than being seen around the halls with an armload of vinyl of obscure bands that you were going to trade and share with the other guys on stage crew and in trig class. Strutting around in front of Jesuit priests while carrying Minor Threat, Black Flag, Die Kreuzen, Bad Brains, and Dead Kennedys albums was just so damn cool, so defiant, right? I mean who wouldn’t want to be caught red-handed by a member of the Catholic clergy who says, “What have you got HERE?” and finds a treasure trove like:
Attending an all boys, Catholic prep school with a coat-and-tie dress code meant that you had to find creative ways to assert your individuality either through unique styles of ties and dress shoes or testing the boundaries of acceptable haircuts. I tended to favor adorning my jacket with band buttons, very 80’s new-wavy thin ties, and a spiky do that I thought was an homage to Billy Idol. Many of my less “alternative” classmates, however, remarked that I bore a remarkable likeness to a well-known Christmas special villain. No worries - I knew I was cool. Nobody moshed around at school dances when the DJ played Rock Lobster like I could, and I always knew that extra ten bucks in my pocket was going to get spent at Zipperhead or Skinz on South Street, probably on a Sex Pistols t-shirt.
I was never the most athletically inclined kid growing up, and I was on the receiving end of more than a few “you sucks” when I tried to fit in with my neighborhood peers and struck out in wiffle ball or when I could still not get down how to execute a perfect slapshot in street hockey. When I got to high school I knew I was not going to make any teams that had cuts, but I realized that ANYONE can run! And not only could I run, but it turned out I could run pretty fast, and I would develop a half-decent talent at jumping over the hurdles across 110 meters. This was pretty fun! Look at me, I’m an athlete!
I would go on to earn a few varsity letters and win a couple of medals at this hurdling gig. I still have my corduroy school jacket with the letter sewn onto it and there’s still one of those previously mentioned lapel pins affixed just above the “Jim ‘87” embroidery. I think I bought that Talking Heads pin at the old “Way Out” store at the Roosevelt Mall. One of my fellow hurdlers was a witty and soft-spoken kid named Steve from Southwest Philly, and one day during stretches before track practice he put a cassette tape in my hand, knowing that I was a fan of offbeat music.
Wow. This was definitely something. I knew the Beastie Boys had cut their teeth in the New York City punk rock scene that was overloaded with three chord thrash merchants of varying degrees of hook or talent.
You never missed the show when Murphy’s Law came to town with their beer-soaked party punk, Token Entry was a rare double-guitar driven positive force act that headlined a show my friends played at the legendary Club Pizazz, and the Cro-Mags on the “Metal Mondays” bill at Delco’s Club Pulsations still goes down as one of THE most powerful, manic, aggressive shows I’ve ever seen. Plus I’m still proud of being able to coax the keys to dad’s Caprice Classic to get to a punk rock show in Media, PA and not have to lie to him about my destination.
Licensed to Ill was a whole different game. Fight for Your Right to Party was already becoming a fist-waving anthem even if rap as a genre was still considered an almost exclusively black listener enclave. The greatest rap album ever made, Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, was still two years away, and little white Edward Furlong sporting a PE t-shirt in Terminator 2, which was seen as some sort of pop cultural moniker in the realm of “crossing over,” was even later.
There were a few white boys among the punk crowd that extolled the greatness of Schoolly D’s Saturday Night - The Album as well as PE’s Yo! Bum Rush the Show! In general though, there was still a good deal of segregation between the musical tastes, enough such that the Beasties’ schtick with Licensed to Ill was almost questioned as if it were some sort of quasi-racist mockery.
Some questioned why it took a bunch of snarky, half-joking Jewish boys to put a musical style with a rich history going back even prior to the days of Grandmaster Flash’s The Message on the map. It was almost like the controversy over Time Magazine putting Dave Brubeck on its cover to finally acknowledge jazz, as if nothing in the genre had been produced prior to Time Out.
But beyond the juvenile, anthemic choruses of Fight for Your Right to Party, you couldn’t help but recognize that tracks like Rhymin’ and Stealin’, The New Style, and No Sleep ‘Til Brooklyn were catchy, honest, and capable cuts in the burgeoning hip-hop genre. Licensed to Ill ended up in heavy rotation alongside all of the other tapes that made frequent appearances in the deck of dad’s Caprice and in the Technics tape player at home. And aside from providing hours of enjoyment of singing along with the clever rhymes with friends while cruising the streets of Philly, it opened up a whole new realm of interest and knowledge in a number of different musical styles.
As the years passed and high school turned into college, it was inevitable that Licensed to Ill would find its way to the back row as other bands and albums would take precedent during a period of intense and manic musical exploration and knowledge building. It was almost as if the Beastie Boys had fallen into the treasure trove of cliches such as “where are they now,” and the often derisively applied “one hit wonders.” It would be a cold winter’s afternoon in December of 1989 after mischievously traipsing around Philadelphia in a chemically induced state of goofiness when I would retreat with three friends to my West Philly lair. One of my partners in crime would suggest, “Wanna check out the new Beastie Boys?”
President Obama jetted into town the other night and was therefore, according to right wing gum-flappery on blogs and their comments sections, responsible for the ensuing mayhem that resulted in the deaths of a number of people. I guess that horrible Marxist, socialist, Kenyan Muslim should have been home searching for his real birth certificate and his Columbia transcripts rather than visiting a country where there are still tens of thousands of American troops in harm’s way and with whom we are trying to settle the terms of a long-term partnership beyond our scheduled military withdrawal. Priorities, Mr. President! Remember, all of those deeply concerned humanitarians in the “peace movement” who are against this war and care so much about the lives of Afghans are loudly clamoring for you to bring an end to the destruction and bloodshed.
As usual, Afghan citizens bore the brunt of the violence, including a family of four that were incinerated in their car. In addition, a brave Nepalese Gurkha guard lost his life in the ensuing gun battle after these jihadi clowns breached security at the giant compound known as the Green Village. Green Village houses hundreds of foreign contractors and international workers, and it’s the place to which you can go to score overpriced Spanish wine and beer. Right on cue, Taliban mouthpiece Zaibullah Mujahid went on to crow about how the “resistance” took out over 30 NATO soldiers in the battle. It’s the usual absurdist blather from this tool that nobody takes seriously to deflect from the fact that these losers always end up in pieces next to the bodies of innocent bystanders, regular Afghan citizens simply going about their business, that are always the bulk of the casualties.
Today is apparently opening day for “fighting season,” and the not-so-ceremonial first pitch was thrown by a student at a local boys’ high school, only rather than a baseball, the charming lad decided to toss a grenade to home plate, injuring three of his classmates. We were sent home early from work when it was also learned that foreigners were going to be deliberately targeted in this opening round.
Since I would at least like to make it to the swimsuit competition in this wacky pageant, and perhaps even get a chance to offer my opinions about “U.S. Americans” to Mario Lopez, I’m content to hole up in my little room and cower. I’m encouraged to keep blogging along since I’ve got the Complete Savoy and Dial Sessions of Charlie Parker bopping along and I’ve also been lauded by critics saying, “Its amazing how well he translates his unique personal smugness so well through his writing.” If you knew the source you would be cracking up as much as I am at one of the most hilarious, textbook cases of projection you could possibly imagine.
It can be occasionally entertaining to indulge someone who insists that Penn is not an Ivy League university, that this is not the flag of Alabama, that he went to the “number one high school in the country” (whatever that means), and has a pathological need to tell people how many college degrees he has, even when the topic is the weather. I mostly try to avoid interacting with people who insist on turning every simple conversation into a manic display of their allegedly superior intellect.
People who assume that other parties have any desire to be condescendingly “educated” by someone whose bona fides are decent, but far from earth-shattering, are tiresome and pretentious, and reveal little of substance other than their own insecurities. What compels a grown man to say to someone, “Tell me what you think, then I’ll tell you why you’re wrong,” followed by yet another tedious reminder of that man’s possession of the oft-mentioned diplomas is not within the realm of psychology I care to explore.
I never asked for any confrontation with this person nor did I ever pretend that I was smarter or more educated than him, but for some reason this person always felt the need to say aloud with a scoff, “Daniels and his Ivy League degree.” I rarely had much by way of response to this nerd-baiting other than shrug, roll my eyes, and think, “And? What the fuck do you want, dude? I’m sorry that I happen to be someone who worked hard and had the wherewithal and work ethic to attend and graduate from a good university and happened to cross paths with you.”
I’m frankly humbled and honored that I had the privilege and the opportunity to attend good schools, I thank my parents for the sacrifices they made so that I could do so, and I value the many brilliant friends that I made through my educational experience who are now tenured professors, public figures, published authors, business owners and executives, talented artists, filmmakers and musicians, and hardworking high-tech designers and engineers. People that I’m thrilled to call my friends are some of the most innovative, intelligent, and brilliant people that I have ever met, and not a single one of them carries themselves with an air of importance or baits people into confrontational interactions in order to puff their own egos. THESE are the people that impress me, not pseudo-intellectual blowhards that look for opportunities to let you know how much higher their standardized test scores are or how they can quote an army field manual. Formal education and knowledge are gifts to enhance and enrich an enjoyable and pleasant life, not to beat people over the head with in order to satiate some completely unnecessary and unwarranted need to feel superior to others. Those who do so are, dare I say, somewhat smug.
I didn’t write a word while I was deployed to Kandahar in 2010. There will be no posthumous, “Jim Daniels - The Lost Army Diaries,” unless Greg Mortenson’s ghost writers want to conjure up some tales of heroics as fabulous as Three Cups of Tea.
I started to write when I first arrived on Kandahar Airfield after a three day stopover in Kyrgyzstan where I would have my last alcoholic beverages for quite some time to come. I found myself with little to say in terms of observations at the beginning of my residence on a large, dusty extension of an airport that had all the charm of a loading dock: it smells like a toilet, there’s a lot of trucks, my team leader is an idiot, there’s a lot of cricket on TV, wow check it out a TGI Fridays, etc.
By the time I found myself heavily involved in work on a seven-day schedule, I had little interest or desire to write about what was, for the most part, a pretty mundane experience. Once I was involved in the literacy project, and especially when the 10th Mountain boys took over, I had no desire to sit and type at a computer during my precious leisure time. As I’ve said on many occasion, there are no truer words than, “L’enfer, c’est les autres.” Solitude is such a gift, but thankfully I had cool, funny roommates, and I still appreciate their willingness to be an audience for my too-frequent, spastic madball rants.
About a week into the deployment I got into a fight with my team leader, who was a complete moron and deaf as a doornail as well. He had to apply for multiple waivers for his hearing problem to be allowed to deploy, which of course, he was given. Everything you said to this twit was answered with, “I’m sorry?” Think about it. The army is willing to waive someone who can barely hear a nuclear bomb going off outside his own damn window and send him into a war zone where he may possibly command troops in a combat situation. This was who I was going to have to answer to in one of the most dangerous places in the world.
The big sarge with the snide expression and perpetually outward-pointed chin was one of those guys who reaches sergeant rank and thinks he’s the shit even though he’s been in the army long enough to be a general and has had to earn his way to that illustrious E-5 rank after losing his rank twice. There are not enough words to describe the incompetence and obnoxious personality of this pompous ass who carried himself with a ridiculous air of superiority, yet was the butt of every joke and impersonation the second his back was turned.
Mighty Team Leader tried to micromanage every aspect of every move everyone made due to a combination of power-hunger and the fact that he was so grossly inept at managing people and objects in his care. During pre-mobilization exercises at lovely Fort Dix, New Jersey, I was chewed out simply because I was on the same team as this guy, and he had lost a headspace and timing gauge for a .50 caliber automatic weapon. This cost our unit about $300 and Sgt. Nimrod tried to blame it on our supply sergeant, a meticulous, brilliant guy with an engineering degree who I can’t imagine ever doing a dishonest thing in his life. Look at the thing. That’s the spending your small-government GOP hawks think is worth every cent to, you know, protect ‘merica from terr’sts.
About a week into the deployment he gathered the team together to tell us that he was ordering us to eat breakfast with him every morning at 5:30 AM. We had to report to the office by 7, and breakfast was a nice time to get your bearings, have some quiet time to read, or to indulge in some chit-chat with your buddies before heading off to business. I politely pointed this out after Bilko made it seem like he wanted to hear my opinion on the matter. His response was to berate and belittle me with extreme sarcasm, something about how I “didn’t want to be on this team,” or some other inane prattle. I calmly and respectfully said, “Excuse me, sergeant, with all due respect, but you’re not listening to what I’m trying to share with you.” I was then told that I would do as he said, “BECAUSE I’M YOUR FUCKING TEAM LEADER! I’M YOUR FUCKING TEAM LEADER!”
As he moved closer to me in a more threatening manner with each profane outburst I stood my ground, stared him down, and told him flat out, “You do NOT need to get that close to me,” and I eventually told him, “Hey man, back off.” I’m not really sure what kind of protocol I broke or what kind of “insubordination” I was engaging in, but I didn’t care. I had zero respect for this guy, and in the civilian world, I definitely would have taken a swing at the cracker.
His ultimate mistake was challenging me to discuss my displeasure with his superior. With a tight-lipped smirk on my face I looked this chump in the eye and said, “Oh I plan to. You can bank on that.” Little did he realize that I was pretty tight with his higher-up who couldn’t stand him either. Schultz was fired the next day, given a crappy desk job that he hated for the rest of the deployment, and we never exchanged another word for ten months. He was replaced by a young sergeant with two Iraq deployments under his belt - a good guy that I still consider a friend and with whom I would eventually go on to have some fun experiences, including my first trip to Kabul (a story in and of itself.)
Jumping ahead in the chronology of events, I mentioned that the nightmare was just beginning with the logistics of watching over, maintaining, and moving forward with a project the size of the literacy program. Add to the fact that I was just a lowly, enlisted E-4 in the pecking order. In the army, all the really matters is your rank. You parade around like Hester Prynne wearing your little picture on your uniform so people can size you up and determine your worth as a human being.
People have asked me why I went into the army at all, let alone as an enlisted soldier and not as an officer. Joining the army at all was a decision based on a twisted combination of morbid curiosity, a sense of adventure, a calculated belief that military experience would pad the resume for certain career options, and a life-long stubborn need to have opinions about events and situations based on first-hand experience. I also recognized that I was a healthy single guy who could pull my weight and pitch in and “serve,” for however you want to define the concept. Maybe by taking the plunge into the whole military shindig I could free up someone who could go home and be with their kids instead of dodging IEDs in some far off land.
I’m not going to wax philosophically about broad and heated topics like nationalism, war, patriotism, or civic duty, (maybe later!) nor am I going to posture like some kind of hero simply because I voluntarily signed up to take a government job with a rifle. I find the blind adulation and worship of everyone who ever “put on the uniform” almost as tacky and annoying as the pseudo-dissident posturing against “the war machine” that you hear from phony hipster doofuses and 60’s hippie retreads.
People from every demographic and every type of background join the military for a very wide variety of reasons. Some do the job well and find their calling in a military uniform, others suck at it and are a drain on the system. Still others try it, do what they’re asked to do, chalk it up as an experience, and ultimately decide it’s not for them and move on to other things. I definitely fall into this last category.
I had a blue collar notion of doing it “the real way” and not just waltzing into a rank where battle hardened NCOs would have to call me “sir.” There seemed something too hierarchical and unjust in that for me. About two days into basic training and my working class hero act was proven to be a mistake. You could be a private with a master’s degree and it doesn’t mean shit - you still have to listen to what anyone above you tells you to do no matter how big of an idiot they are. Once some characters reach non-commissioned officer rank, you can almost watch the need for their hat to be let out three sizes right in front of you. There are a LOT of idiots in the army, but they’re not a fraction as bad as the ones who are convinced that they’re geniuses. I found the ones among the latter to be the most difficult to bear with any amount of patience. I’m seldom one to keep opinions to myself, so this deployment was truly a test of my strength and patience. Especially when the article was published.
One of the few U.S. military officers that I actually like and respect (aside from the former Prep students that I know) was the commanding officer of my detachment during my deployment to Kandahar in 2010. He knew that I had a background in teaching, and he decided that I was the guy to head up an interesting project. Since radio is the most popular and accessible form of media in Afghanistan, we decided to try to put a dent in the illiteracy problem through radio. As I’ve mentioned before, Afghanistan has one of the lowest literacy rates in the world, and this seemed like an opportunity to put our talents to good use. I wasn’t too keen on the idea of pulling the trigger of a weapon on anyone, and this task seemed more suitable for me. The youngsters can go out into the field and fancy themselves heroes as far as I was concerned. A lot of the younger cats seemed to need a few war stories under their belts to add a few millimeters to where they obviously felt inadequate.
The plan went like this: We would print and distribute thousands of copies of the level one Pashto reading primer that is used in the Afghan school system to the people, mostly women, throughout the Kandahar City region. We would hire an experienced Afghan teacher to create lessons using the book and record the lessons in the recording studio that we had on the base. Our graphics department was led by an enormously talented and hilariously sarcastic artist who created a fabulous advertising campaign to get the word out about the program. In our dreams, Afghan women were going to be experiencing the power of reading across Kandahar.
Let the nightmare begin.
My background is in teaching, but this gig was going to be a test of my ability to manage a large-scale project, in a war zone, as a member of the most ludicrous bureaucracy of alpha-males on the planet, while having to play ball with officials in a government that garnered no respect from anyone and was teetering on the brink of collapse at the hands of a bloodthirsty insurgency of murderous savages. I could imagine nothing less than flawlessly smooth progress on the path to accolades and speaking engagements. My Nobel Peace Prize nomination would be no less worthy than that of the Dalai Lama himself.
The government of Afghanistan has a well-earned reputation for being notoriously corrupt. Having lived in Philadelphia for most of my life, I’m not going to cast too many stones in the direction of that subject, nor should any Americans when we elect so many useless, incompetent, and downright brain-dead stupid excuses for clowns to high ranking positions in our government. I’d be willing to bet, however, that any one of these dipshits could get one of their lackeys to sign a piece of paper in less than four months.
Four months. That’s how long it took to get some paunchy right-hand-man to the provincial minister of education of Kandahar with a fake “Dr.” title to sign a piece of paper giving us permission to reproduce their jealously guarded reading books. Everything in Afghan officialdom is handled in top-down style, and if there’s money to be made in a racket like, say, mass book printing, those at the top are going to hold back from allowing the job to get done until they know the right people get a proper cut of the goods. I rode in an armored convoy to Kandahar City to get an audience with this tool and to plead the case for our program.
With the ubiquitous one cup of tea in hand (I never got to two, let along three) and my M-4 rifle sitting at my feet, I got to listen to a lecture about schools, America, the Pashto language, and some other pointless topics before I left still wondering whether anything that was said indicated that we were going to get that signature. Another part of the mission was to drop off a large shipment of cold weather clothing donations. The “doctor” had a young lackey who looked at one of the sweaters, and with an eye-roll and scoff he dismissed the donation with, “Ehhh…well…Afghans really don’t wear THESE kinds of clothes.” The sweaters were more than likely burned for heating and the signature was granted about a month later.
Kabul can be a little rough around the edges. Kandahar is downright apocalyptic. To use a Philly comparison, Kandahar is Kensington to Kabul’s Chestnut Hill. Not that it wasn’t fun to go out on a couple of missions in Kandahar City as a military guy, but there is no way in the ever burning eternity of hell that I would take a civilian job there unless it was on the airfield several miles outside the city. But hey, we had a goal in mind - to bring the joy of reading to this population, and dammit that elusive milestone of getting the Afghan version of a TPS Report was just the first step toward becoming a hero like Greg Mortenson!
Once the presses got rolling things actually started to fall into place a bit. The advertising campaign was on track with excellent posters that depicted happy Afghans reading and going to school, and I was writing public service announcements for the radio that were stirring interest in the program. Every day, however, deadlines were looming, and when I would cross paths with the commanding officer, I would brace myself for the inevitable, “Did you hire that teacher yet?” Not only was I supposed to find an experienced teacher, but I was supposed to find a speaker of Pashto in the specifically Kandahari dialect, and a female teacher was preferred as well. There were a few, shall we say, “challenges” involved in this task.
First of all, you can’t just put up an ad on the Kandahar City page of craigslist with the job and ideal candidate descriptions, and start sorting through the resumes. It was difficult enough when I had to interview candidates for a math teaching job at St. Joseph’s Prep when a veteran teacher keeled over and died at a Phillies game. My choice for a replacement was overruled by a well-meaning principal, and I ended up with the now legendary and infamous Morton D. Fish in my department. Everything that I predicted would go wrong by hiring this silly little man happened within the first week of class. This Kandahari teacher deal was a whole other bargain.
Second, even if you could find someone that fit the desired profile, the process you have to go through to get clearance to come onto Kandahar Airfield, even escorted, takes months. And tracking down a drone who works in the office that handles this process and can explain it well is like finding a suitable wife for Rip Taylor. It was apropos that the only meaningful contact I had was with some sergeant named Disney who emailed me a 200 page document on the topic of entry clearance. I felt like I was in a cartoon.
Finally, the chances of finding a woman in Kandahar who can travel unescorted to work for the U.S. military are as likely as Rasheed Wallace breaking 700 on the SAT or admitting that he committed a foul.
The daunting task of finding “the voice” for the program was solved when another extremely likeable and down-to-earth officer in our unit found out that one of our cultural advisers was an experienced teacher in both the United States and in his native Kandahar, and he agreed to take on the job of turning the reading book into a radio program. I cannot speak highly enough of this outstanding gentleman without whom this project would have never seen the light of day.
The cultural advisers not only have full plates of translating to do, but they are given any and every task that requires the “Afghan touch.” They live in the same austere conditions as the military personnel, and they do their jobs with death threats looming of them and their families. Yes, the money is great, but what good is a paycheck if you are killed by fanatics that see you as a traitor and a tool of the invader?
The interpreters and cultural advisers are some of the bravest people that I have ever met, and they truly want to see a better future for their families and their country. I am proud to call the fellow teacher that made our program work a friend and colleague. I still exchange emails with him to this day and I am always happy to hear that he and his family are healthy, happy, and safe. He certainly did not deserve the shitstorm that rained down upon him when a new sheriff came to town in the form of the 10th Mountain Division.
The laid back, easygoing British leadership was stepping aside and we would soon have to answer to the “big army,” specifically to a man whose personality and juvenile fandom of his alma mater embodied everything I feared and loathed. It was going to be a long deployment.