Dr. Bob Fuselier of Los Alamos, foreground, with Dr. Mohammad Kharoti, center, during meeting with elders from Helmand Province village in Afghanistan recently. Courtesy photo
Not knowing the language of the people you are visiting obviously slows the process of getting to know one another.
At the GVS-AEC, however, the language barrier didn’t keep the staff and students from making us feel at home.
Any meeting was accompanied by smiles and tea served by someone who worked in some capacity in the compound that housed the AEC: the cook, the watchman, one of the student-workers.
Sit down to talk and tea appeared, often with roasted chick peas and dried grapes, Afghan raisins. Tea, chai, is a critical component of getting to know one another in Afghanistan.
In between meetings and ceremonies, the students who had remained at the AEC practiced their English with us; Blake and I tried out our Pashto. The usual taboos of male/female interaction are relaxed when a guest is welcomed into a family setting. Although this was the case with some of the female students who were related to Ayub and Dr. Kharoti, they still were shy when talking to us. Things changed, however, when I connected them to my wife, daughter, and granddaughter through Skype. On two different occasions, they made the cross-globe Internet visit for at least an hour each. After that, their conversations with me were more relaxed, due at least in part to their being welcomed into my family by the female members of my family.
Tradition is extremely important in setting the tone for meetings and conversations. Getting to know one another takes time and is critical if Afghan relations are to find success. Such was the case with our meetings with the elders from the village in Helmand Province. Our first meeting with one elder was successful enough that he and four others returned the following day for further talks (names will be left out to minimize any potential harm to the elders from ‘those who create problems’. An acquaintance of mine who is in Afghanistan told me later that we were lucky to be available for multiple days of talks. Too many Western officials and businessmen schedule only one day for meetings and, thus, never make the personal connections required for successful negotiations.
The meeting with the five elders began with handshakes followed by placing the right hand over the heart, a sign of respect. Unknown and unnoticed to me at the time, Ayub had planned a nontraditional icebreaker for one of the elders, who he knew. As the elder entered the room, Ayub tossed him a rubber snake that I had brought as my own icebreaker gag. Afghans enjoy a good sense humor. I’m sure Ayub is still enjoying my snake.
My introduction at the meeting included where I was from, my profession, and more importantly, why I had come to Afghanistan: to support the work of Dr. Mohammad Kharoti, whom I had come to trust and respect. I explained that a tradition taught to me by my father and fostered by my faith was to help others, that by serving others I served God. Serving God by serving others is a major principle of Islam; the elders understood what I was saying. I recounted our meeting from the day before, reiterating that I was willing to take their story back to the people of my community, many of who would be interested in helping them. I then asked them for their story.
One elder spoke for all. I’m not sure of his level of education, but he appeared will informed and knowledgeable. He began by saying that he and his people have nothing against Americans, they are tired of war and being bombed, and they believe a better future for them and their children will come through education. He reminded me that long ago Afghanistan and the surrounding region was an intellectual center of the world. In many cities of Afghanistan, he continued, exist important texts that date back centuries.
He related that, in his village, the boys learn religious education in their mosques. Recently, some girls had been attending. He then, using an interesting analogy, spoke of the need for ‘science’ education. He described the status of education as two boats, one of religious education and one of science education, floating beside one another. The problem, he explained, is that too often one is overloaded and at risk of sinking and the other is empty. He went on to say that they should be equally weighted, coming together to work towards the same goal. His village had no ‘science’ boat.
I then asked him his thoughts on the education of girls. He didn’t hesitate with his reply: the Koran mandates education for both. I explained that I had read about this. The daughter of a friend of mine had married a man from Morocco and had converted to Islam. Since I would be working with Muslim students, I contacted her for recommendations of resources to explain Islam. She referred me to CAIR, which was giving away English translations of the Koran. I told the elder I ordered a set and had begun reading the translation; it was through this translation that I knew that the Koran mandated education of both sexes.
The elder listened to the translation of my story form Dr. Kharoti. When he had finished, the elder turned to me and said, “I wish I knew English so that I could explain Islam to you.” He didn’t want to recite the Koran to me, which can only be done in ancient Arabic. He wanted me to understand his faith.
Elders gathered at a meeting in Afghanistan with Los Alamos resident Dr. Bob Fuselier, are shown Dr. Mohammad Kharoti’s house in Portland, Ore., via Google Earth. Courtesy photo
Our discussion of education developed into future possibilities for the people of his village. I told him about the internet, that through this technology their families could one day sell from their homes the embroidery and other handiwork they create. As Dr. Kharoti was translating, Blake pulled up images of Afghan clothing on a computer. The elders’ interest was obvious.
I explained that the internet is a tool, one that’s often frustrating for me but is easily used by those of Blake’s generation. I told them that, like all tools, it is neither good nor bad. Some people use it for bad intentions, others like Blake use is to do good work. Dr. Kharoti then asked Blake to show the elders his home. Blake pulled up Google Earth. As he zoomed in on Dr. Kharoti’s house in Portland, Oregon, the elders drew closer to the screen. When the houses came into focus, Dr. Kharoti pointed to his house and said, “There’s my front door.” Blake then pulled up my house in New Mexico. The elders began talking amongst each other and to Dr. Kharoti. No translation was needed, they were impressed.
The meeting was coming to a close. The elders asked if I would return. I told them that I would when I could visit their village, hopefully to see a new school, and after I had saved up enough to pay for the trip back. I told them again I would take their story back home to others. They said we should stay in touch.
After we had returned to Kabul, we learned that they had wanted to see us again. When they were told we had left, they asked if they had said anything to offend us. They were assured that they hadn’t, that we were simply heading back home.
I hope to continue to stay in touch with one or more of the elders through the internet. This is possible if Green Village School’s Advanced Education Center can obtain the funding to remain open. The GVS-AEC is more than just an educational center for young students learning English and computer/internet technology. It is also a vital community resource that allows elders from a remote Afghan village the opportunity to stay in touch with residents in Los Alamos, NM.
If you are interested in helping to fund the school for the elders’ village, please go to: http://www.peacepal.org/
Click on the orange “Donate” stamp in the upper right corner. On their donation page, indicate that your donation is for “Elders’ Village School.”
Feel free to contact me about more information, including the name of the village where the school will be built, at firstname.lastname@example.org.