I was in a meeting yesterday with three of my coworkers at the Ministry of the Interior to discuss our project with the jovial police commander who enjoys practicing his novice English with myself and my native English speaking coworker, a British-Canadian woman with decades of international experience and an unrelenting to the point of satire-worthy need to bring up gender issues and sexism in almost every conversation. Afghanistan is a platinum-coated soapbox. I can’t say I can blame her in this environment, especially when the commander’s Mr. Smithers, a grotesquely overweight ogre whose only job appears to be fetching and pouring tea for guests, focused a never-shifting glare on her throughout the entire meeting.
The commander was proud to speak about the history of adult education in Afghanistan, and he was more than happy to have us take photos of his framed pictures that featured King Amanullah Khan, the forward-thinking, progressive Afghan monarch who led his nation to independence in 1921 after successfully negotiating an armistice with their perpetual British foes. The history of Afghan-British relations continues to fill volumes, and its controversies and interpretations are well beyond the scope of a simple blog post.
King Amanullah was a well-traveled leader and was greatly influenced and inspired during his visits to European capitals and looked to Turkey’s Kemal Ataturk as a model ruler to emulate. Amanullah was a secularist whose father-in-law Mahmud Tarzi was one of Afghanistan’s greatest scholars and public figures during the early days of independence. Tarzi, an accomplished journalist, poet, and statesman is still revered in Afghanistan as an staunch advocate of education, freedom of expression, scholarship, and gender equality.
Tarzi’s daughter, Soraya, who would marry Amanullah and become queen, was a brilliant and sophisticated woman of the world who was perhaps the greatest influence on the king’s progressive beliefs about the role of women in Afghan society. Soraya rocked! She wasn’t having any of the sexist traditions that unfortunately still stifle Afghan women today. In addition to being highly educated and outspoken, Soraya wasn’t afraid to ride horses, go on hunting parties, comfort wounded soldiers during wartime, and kick it flapper style in public.
Her public casting aside of the veil remains the stuff of legend. Of course, no bold statement by Afghan women goes unanswered by the often maddeningly Neanderthal-like reactionary elements that seem to be part of the landscape in this nation.
Philosophers and political scientists will continue to argue about the meaning and caveats of “reform” when referring to the imposition of change on a society through legislation and decrees of state. One egghead’s reformer is another wonk’s reactionary, and the subtopic of “pace” will always be worthy of debate. Afghanistan is such a patchwork of peoples and traditions that you cannot justifiably apply a single sweeping term to describe the “mentality,” culture, or ideology of the entire nation without being intellectually lazy or sounding like a quaint, archaic imperialist. Without getting too deep, let’s just say that there have been and always will be a few characters who don’t take kindly to rapid and progressive reforms like those enacted by the Afghan royals. One such character would be this guy:
Habibullah Kalakani looks like a real load of laughs, doesn’t he? I’ve done a little reading about this guy, and sure, some people seem to think he was alright, despite being a total rube, a thief, an incompetent, and the William Henry Harrison of 20th century Afghan politics. After all, some people also like the Atlanta Braves and Pearl Jam.
I haven’t delved too deeply into the brief reign of this cat, but the impression that I’ve gotten is that ol’ Habib here wasn’t holding court to help arrange the first Afghan Lilith Fair in Jalalabad. Habib and a posse of like-minded souls decided that they were having none of this education nonsense, let alone allow the horrific notion of women as free, autonomous individuals take root, so they took to the streets. Now unlike his buddy Ataturk in Turkey, King Amanullah’s boys in the military didn’t exactly have his back and they bailed on him faster than Kent Brockman welcomed his new insect overlords.
Habibullah’s reign didn’t even last a year and he eventually met his fate on the gallows. The new Afghan monarch, Nadir Shah, pulled the ol’ “don’t worry we won’t hurt you” gag to lure Habibullah to his capture and execution. Not the brightest bunny in the woods there, Habib! King Amanullah and Queen Soraya would live out their lives exiled in Italy and they are fondly remembered as a royal couple that sought to bring modernity to their nation, especially through their passion for literacy and education.
Sipping tea in the Ministry office, having a high ranking Afghan official express his pride in his country’s history of reform through education, and having him offer his thanks and appreciation to me for coming to Afghanistan to share my experience as a teacher, I felt a lot of pride and inspiration. It was great to know that I was working to support a goal that means a lot to a lot of people here. Many times I’ve heard it expressed by Afghans that no matter how complex and challenging the issues are that they face as a nation, the key to a better future is always better education. I was ready to get back to work, and nothing was going to slow me down.
Except, perhaps, a coordinated attack by insurgents in the middle of one of the busiest sections of Kabul and in three other provinces.