There are good productions of the musical, and the best ones know that the musical is a tragedy, despite the fact that all its best songwriting is comedic, in the first half. If you watch it or listen to it, note: the first two songs (“I Wonder What The King Is Doing Tonight” and “The Simple Joys of Maidenhood”) mock the self-involved self-indulgence of their royal principals. That self-indulgence becomes the war-torn destruction of a culture. So yeah, I reject the critical dismissal of the musical as little other than a Kennedy-era bon-bon. “Fie On Goodness” in 1960 was an acknowledgement of the human element of war crimes, fifteen years after the Nuremberg trials.
Several days ago, I accompanied the advisor team’s supply officer and the Afghans’ supply NCO on an overcast beige-sky afternoon with rainclouds threatening as they went to a warehouse to receive several dozen pallets of laptops. The forklift driver offloaded them from the trucks — one pallet teetered and toppled to its side, but fortunately no damage — and into the central aisle of the warehouse, where another soldier with a skid jack maneuvered them into secure chain-link cages that were then locked and taped, and the doors to the warehouse themselves locked and bolted. A feral cat had made its home in the corner of one cage among the sacks of grain and beans and stacks of boxes and crates, suspicious of people, but clearly healthy and able to find its own way in and out of the warehouse. I took pictures of the unloading. The supply officer was reluctant to have his picture taken signing for the computers with the Afghans and the contract representative.
Raymond Williams, in his (neglected?) essay “Means of Communication as Means of Production,” argues that there are some obstacles to actually understanding the means of communication as the means of production:
First, the means of communication, having been reduced from their status as means of social production, are seen only as ‘media’: devices for the passing of ‘information’ and ‘messages’ between persons who either generally, or in terms of some specific act of production, are abstracted from the communication process as unproblematic ‘senders’ or ‘receivers’. (51)
I’ve seen a rhetorical habit in some scholarship today that attempts to avoid or defuse or otherwise subvert this (what I see as valid) criticism of enthusiasms over “new media” by offering a caveat along the lines of but of course all media are material. We think that if we just say we’re doing Actor Network Theory enough, or what-have-you, we’ll be let off the hook for performing those generalizing and abstracting moves.
Two meetings, less than a week apart. One is in a large room with black leather couches around the perimeter, the most senior person’s desk — this is his office — in the corner furthest from the door. More important people sit closer to the position of power; less important closer to the door. The floor is covered by two matching large 10 x 15′ Afghan rugs in black and red and green and white. In front of the couches there are faux-wood coffee tables with chrome feet and floral-design clear glass tops. A bookcase with sagging shelves sits in one corner. Gilt-framed maroon velvet bulletin boards hang on the walls with organizational charts and calendars and quotations in Dari, and framed plastic-covered maps bracket a gold-framed photo portrait of President Karzai in the place of honor between the windows.
The couches are filled: there are a total of nineteen people in the room. There is an initial speech of 25 minutes or so, noting academic issues that have come up, offering guidance. There is some discussion of the fact that a Web presence and a Facebook page for the Academy have been authorized, and that “These will solve most of our problems.”
Things here seem to stay where people set them. Our mentor team rotates, here for 45 days or three months or six months or a year, and some of the Afghan instructors rotate in and out as well. In Lab 15, there are four dead computers gathering dust under desks and in corners — two Dells, two off-brand — in addition to the 20 sheet-shrouded operational computers running down either side of the long room with a single row of battered metal chairs facing front in the middle. There are computer parts in tattered cardboard boxes, a boombox for playing English-language listening and conversation practice cassettes and CDs, a DVD player, a VCR, a marker- and dirt-smudged Smart Board hanging on the wall. In the back corner of the room, there is a metal wheeled cart with a TV set and a dirty mug and three boxed sets of children’s games. Each of the operational computers has a small uninterruptible power supply next to it because of how unreliable the electricity is. Under the teacher’s desk, there are two more power supplies on their sides, unused, a white thermal carafe, styrofoam forms for packing electronics, woven reed baskets, a CRT and a 13-inch flat-panel monitor, remote controls hidden under stacks of years-old student papers, an empty rosewater bottle. The rooms we work in accumulate the detritus of instruction, including the superannuated technological capital associated with computer-based teaching.
When I first arrived here, I moved freely from my office overlooking the airfield to Lab 15 or to other classrooms to observe the Afghan teachers, though that freedom of movement was and is circumscribed by the boundaries of the small campus. It’s fenced on all sides, accessible only through checkpoints with gates, crew-served weapons, and armed guards. We drive past the airfield to get here: on one side the civilian Kabul International Airport that the Ariana and Kam and Safi jets fly out of with the few here wealthy enough to travel on them, and on the other the Mi-35 and Mi-17 helicopters and C-27 cargo planes of the Afghan Air Force. It was easy enough to take a break from working on the computer — before I learned to I needed to get out of the office and move in order to do my job — and watch the planes taking off and landing, just as I used to watch the cargo ships go up and down the Hudson from my office at West Point.
I see similarities to the large-scale mobility of the multinational military presence here — the helicopters and cargo planes, flying missions and materiel and personnel beyond, within, and across Afghanistan — in the critique Bruce Horner and Min-Zhan Lu offer in “Composing in a Local-Global Context” (2009) of the formulation by which “success… is imagined in terms of the extra-territorial mobility achieved: the ability of the few across the world to constantly move, untied by emotion or responsibility to any one territory, identity, or career” (122). Transnational and transterritorial mobility is a marker of privilege, much as we see in “Globalism and Multimodality in a Digitized World,” where Gail Hawisher, Cynthia Selfe, Gorjana Kisa, and Shafinaz Ahmed (2009) use “the term transnational… to signify a growing group of students who are at home in more than one culture… These students typically speak multiple languages, often including varieties of English from outside the United States, and maintain networks of friends, family members, and other contacts around the globe” (56). In some instances, mobility itself possesses agency, rather than the things that possess that mobility, as in Horner and Lu’s assertion that “the extra-territorial mobility of capital robs individual locales, lives, and lines of work of any vestige of stability” (123). The tribally and socially connected nature of Afghan culture feels deeply local, with little of the assumed privilege we associate with the American fetish for cars and planes and so-called footloose capital.
Since the recent incident, it’s become harder for Americans to move around the campus. We don’t go anywhere alone, and there’s a check-in and check-out system, and increased security measures all around. Body armor any time we go outside the gate, even if we’re still inside the wire. Within the gate, there’s little freedom of movement, and few places to go. We draw the shades in our offices, and I no longer watch the comings and goings of the planes.
I stood in a hangar with hundreds of others this afternoon. There were the doors open to the airfield and the cloudless haze-blue sky and the sounds of aircraft outside above the hushed murmur. I stood with the small group I knew, surrounded by others we saw in passing or lived nearby or talked to or dined with, but apart from the occasional hug or pat on the shoulder or back, there was still the Western reserve — maybe appropriate, given the official nature of the event — but still entirely different from the emotional intimacy I’ve learned to expect from the Afghans.
That’s been the thing that’s been hardest for me to learn here. Americans are schooled to sublimate our emotions, and I think those who work for and with and in the military moreso than most, although academics do it as well. When Americans work, we work. We’re blinkered by our on-task orientation, our email screens, our lesson plans. With the Afghans, I certainly didn’t understand that the first thing to do was to sit down and have tea, and that the second thing to do was to sit down and have tea again and perhaps talk about one’s family, and that what was most important was the respect and shared common feeling and emotional well-being of those with whom one would meet and talk and perhaps, eventually, work. I got more mileage here — perhaps fittingly — out of a five-minute story about my brother’s wedding than I did out of hours of discussing ideas about teaching, pedagogy, and writing.
That extends here in strange ways. Greg Mortenson has seen bad press lately for the apparent lies and corruption connected to the projects he’s written about in Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools. Rory Stewart and Sarah Chayes talk about the apparent widespread acceptance of corruption in Afghanistan, and about the cavalier attitude toward some ideal of truth. I’m sometimes finding something similar. Afghans are amazing orators, especially when it comes to matters of pathos. What matters here is how you and your interlocutor feel about something: the facts are flexible. Questions of timeliness, validity, procedure, accuracy, cost, and accountability are all often secondary to the felt bonds of the social relationship. More than anything, the reciprocal ties of sociality are key.
It’s taken me three and a half months to start figuring that out; to start knowing that in practice. There are its corollaries: you respect the people you work with. As an American, you don’t argue with someone. You don’t make someone lose face. You accept someone’s hospitality. And if you’re going to build what you came to build, you can’t do it with weapons, or wearing body armor in your day-to-day interactions.
All of that has left me feeling unsettled, still, especially this afternoon in that hangar, when those bonds of the social were as quiet and solemn and solid as they were in our Western way, with those words about the enthusiasm sometimes forced and the determination with hearts sometimes heavy, and those words about having given the last full measure, and one by one people would stand at the call of their names until a name was called and no one stood, and another, and another, and another, and another, and another, and another, and another, and another.
Six days of the week, I’m up at 0445 or 0545, depending upon whether I’m ambitious enough to make it to the gym or lazy enough to roll over in my bottom bunk for another hour’s sleep. I’m in one of seven tiny shower stalls in the men’s washroom by 0550 and dressed in my desert camouflage uniform and cap and sand-colored boots and walking down the road past the airfield and the International Joint Command headquarters to KBR Dining Facility #2 by 0620, where I’ll wash my hands at the automatic faucets over the stainless steel trough before scanning my meal card and taking a plastic tray and paper plate to the line, where I’ll get a bowl of oatmeal with some milk and a bowl of fruit cocktail mixed with fresh watermelon and plain yogurt, and sometimes half a danish. After breakfast, it’s back to the barracks to brush my teeth with bottled water — the wash water isn’t potable — and pick up my kevlar helmet and body armor and head downstairs to the vehicles. I usually ride in one of the two up-armored SUVs that always travel together, but our group has two mini-vans to travel in as well, though only the SUVs go outside the wire.
Most days we don’t go outside the wire. Instead, we follow the perimeter road around the airfield through and past multiple separate gated checkpoints with armed guards, stone walls and Hesco barriers and concertina wire and machine guns on one side and concertina wire and Kabul traffic on the other. The drive takes less than half an hour, long enough to see the Afghan day workers waiting to get through the biometric identification at the gates, to see how thick the haze is over Kabul, to pass the truckers huddled around cookfires beside their blankets and brightly colored and decorated rigs on the side of the road and the half-built apartment buildings and the pack of wild dogs and the mine-clearing operation with its earth-mover and lone ambulance and woefully under-armored Afghans. The perimeter road is part paved and part potholed dust and gravel, mud and enormous puddles now in the rainy season. I’ve gotten used to the smell of Kabul, which is mostly the tang of diesel mixed with other scents of burning — plastic, sometimes cooking, woodsmoke — and kerosene, with a usually faint but omnipresent sour note of sewage.
Much of the time, the building we work in has the same smells, though less intense. The bathrooms have straddle-style squat toilets with faucets and pitchers of water beside them for flushing. We work out of a few shared offices on one hallway that we share with the Turks and our translators; my own desk is next to the window in a long, narrow room that has six other desks and paint-peeling walls and books and maps and office supplies scattered everywhere, a reflection of its its transient nature, I suppose. The building is wired partly on the inside, with steel sleds suspended two feet from the ceiling carrying electrical and communication cables, and partly on the outside, with other wires going in and out windows and up the side of the building to a hodgepodge of dishes and antennae on the roof. Our internet is via satellite from France, and goes down as frequently as the power. Stray cats roam in and out of the building, begging loudly, but too cautious by experience to get close to humans. When some aspect of my job calls for me to communicate with students or faculty who don’t speak much English — my Dari is still limited to a few words and phrases, though I’m trying to learn in my off-time — I’ll go across the hall and ask for help from the translator assigned to me, S., who I was somewhat surprised to find is female.
I’ve made mistakes in my early interactions with Afghans, and I’m certain I will continue to do so. I’ve failed to sit down and have tea and chat for an hour, or two, when introducing myself, too eager in the Western way to hurry up and get things done. I’ve failed to ask about someone’s health and his family before asking about work. In Sarah Chayes’ account of her experiences in Afghanistan, The Punishment of Virtue, I find my own reflected, especially in her description of Westerners who
thought in institutional terms. Their mission, as some of them understood it, was to cultivate, encourage, and foster the fledgling Afghan government. And for most of them, that meant shoring up its ‘institutions’: its ministries, its courts, its provincial administrations.
Western political culture prompts us to think this way. Over the past three or four centuries, we in the West have designed and laboriously erected instituions as our bulwark against tyranny. And we have come to revere them, for they have indeed protected us. . . But Afghanistan is not there yet. In Afghanistan, loyalties and allegiances are to individuals. (169)
Individuals, not institutions. Not abstractions. As Chayes notes, “in Afghanistan, the exercise of power remains personal. There are no institutions; there are only powerful men” (163). I’ve presumed that work and the institutions I’ve associated with my work here — building democracy, infrastructure, an educational system — are more important than other things in the lives of the people I’ve met here, a foolish and myopic assumption easily belied by even my own experience.
Some of the dissonance I’ve been encountering — some of the ways in which I’ve felt challenged, stymied, held out, unable to do what seems or feels like my mission — has been a result of my expecting to do things in familiar Western ways, in my expectation that the merits of whatever I might try to do would be as self-evident here as they are (not that they always are, but even on the many times they aren’t, they’re at least arguable in accessible terms and ideologies) back in the U.S. Which is of course a simple enough expression of cultural difference, but still a reminder to me that I ought not try to pin down or make falsely familiar cultures to which I do not have access and of which I do not have membership. And the thing is, I see a lot of that in the scholarship on composition and world Englishes under globalization to which I’ve been turning for assistance.
That’s a problem for me. There are assumptions about the self-evidentiary nature of other cultures in that scholarship, as well, that make me want to point out that Afghan culture is no more homogenous than American culture; no more authentic in its inwardly lived experience or meretricious in its gregarious and manifest outward appearance; no more situated at the teleological end of a familiar historical tradition than American culture; no more possible to subjugate via knowing or explaining than American culture. Rather, and it took Bhabha to get me to start to see this, it’s constructed, narrated into being by its contacts internal and external, always already forming itself in relation to that which is reciprocally always already there, simultaneously that which is itself and that which is not itself and in which it defines itself against. That’s the theoretical way to put it, at least. In lived experience, it’s the translator who asks to go home to his house in Kabul because it’s snowing and his mud roof will cave in if he doesn’t shovel it; it’s the instructors who shrug and profess that they can do nothing about students being late to class since the Americans have objected to beating the students; it’s all these ruptures and fissures and limit cases that are instances of cultural difference always as a function of relation.
Bhabha explains it better than I do, noting that
the epistemological ‘limits’ of those ethnocentric ideas [“of the ‘grand narratives’ of post-enlightenment rationalism”] are also the enunciative boundaries of a range of other dissonant, even dissident histories and voices — women, the colonized, minority groups, the bearers of policed sexualities. For the demography of the new internationalism is the history of postcolonial migration, the narratives of cultural and political diaspora, the major social displacements of peasant and aboriginal communities, the poetics of exile, the grim prose of political and economic refugees. It is in this sense that the boundary becomes the place from which something begins its presencing in a movement not dissimilar to the ambulant, ambivalent articulation of the beyond that I have drawn out: ‘Always and ever differently the bridge escorts the lingering and hastening ways of men to and fro, so that they may get to other banks…. The bridge gathers as a passage that crosses. (Introduction to The Location of Culture)
In my attempts to think about the ends of education as performed here in Afghanistan, what I’m running into is an experience of Afghanistan as the local and immediate space of difference between democracy and tribalism, village-building and nation-building, individual gain and communal advance. That’s fine: I can adjust, am adjusting, to that; doing my best, somewhat embarrassed at my initial arrogant assumptions about how little I might have to adjust myself, my perspective, who I am as a scholar and teacher and what I think I can be and know and do.
What’s not fine is that the more I read composition scholarship on multilingual pedagogies under the effects of economic globalization, the more I reject its remarkable eagerness to perceive its own privilege in others; the more I reject its unreflective emphasis on the privileges of “capital,” “networks,” “exchange,” “textuality,” “citizenship,” and especially the assumed privilege of traveling between. In these articles, there’s a narcissistic privilege that sees itself everywhere it looks, in the students who use computers just like we use them in the U.S., in the ways the homogenous capitalism just like we’ve produced in the U.S. is producing its homogenous effects in other countries just like we do at home.
I think of Pico Iyer’s description of the tourist and how we’ve replaced the blinkered imperialism of the traveler who complains that nothing abroad is the way it is at home with the blinkered imperialism of the traveler who complains that everything abroad is just like it is at home.
There’s an apocryphal story supposedly told and repeated in the past year or so by a high-ranking general here, one I’ve only heard secondhand, and so I don’t really have access to verifying its details or its telling, but it’s a grim story, and goes something like this: there’s a mixed unit operating in the field in one of the more dangerous places in Afghanistan, US soldiers and Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers, and they come under fire from insurgents and call for reinforcements and a medevac for the injured, only conditions are such that the Americans can’t figure out where they are from the landmarks and the Afghans can’t read the map well enough or communicate on the radio sufficiently clearly to give the inbound helicopters an accurate fix on where they are. By the time the helicopters locate them, there’s no one left. The medevac becomes a casevac.
It’s told to highlight the perils of miscommunication or lack of communication across languages and cultures, and told in service of a commitment to English-language education for ANA soldiers. Afghanistan has two official languages and a number of others besides, and rather than build L1 literacy and then L2 proficiency, the notion is to move directly to L2 proficiency and literacy for all Afghans, using English as the acknowledged foreign alternate language or interlanguage for purposes that most Americans here would consider to be pragmatic, or what James Britton and others have called “transactional”: language that gets things done; that performs the work of the world.
To that end, the English as a foreign language classes here are designed and taught to promote and assess pragmatic linguistic competency in reading, listening, speaking, and writing. As one would expect, at the Afghan institution that I’m working at until mid-June, English instruction is understood as purely and deeply pragmatic, much as English seems to be used to accomplish the quotidiana between and among the diverse soldiers of the international force at the base where I’m housed, Israelis and Mongolians and Greeks and Romanians and British and Dutch and French and Belgians and Americans and Germans and Portuguese and Australians and Italians and others.
I’m writing this at a picnic table outside. It’s warm for a January day; an afternoon in the 40s, a cool breeze doing nothing to cut through the heavy haze, and three Czech smokers come outside for their before-dinner fixes as the sun starts to go down. Behind me, there are the main doors to the barracks with laser-printed semi-official reminders and dicta and policies; to my left, the comings and goings from the flight line that I’m strictly forbidden from photographing, Bulgarian Hinds and white-painted UN cargo helicopters, the Air Force’s C-130s, the 727s and 737s flown by Ariana and Pamir bound for Kuwait or Dubai or Kandahar or other polyglot locales where English can similarly serve as a second language or — in its function as a “bridge” language — sometimes as something approaching a lingua franca. All around, there are the technological implements of communication: cell phone aerials, satellite dishes craning their concave faces skywards, coax and Cat 6 cable strung through the hallways of the barracks, radio towers topped by their blinking caution lights, and to my front, the vehicles studded with their electronic countermeasures antennae that serve to protect against IEDs activated via various electronic devices when powered up, generating around them a traveling null zone empty of any indigenous electronic signals, an electromagnetically-produced decommunicationalized bubble that leaves pedestrians glaring at their cell phones and then at us — the high-tech multinationals who travel swiftly through their streets; who use English as our own sort of interlanguage — in frustration. Yes, there’s some imperialism here, arguably even something of a colonialist project, and I’m ambivalent about some aspects of it, even — as I’ve noted before — while I believe in the need for and usefulness of literacy in service of the rule of law and self-determination for Afghanistan.
That imperialism is one analogue of the “English-only instruction” that Min-Zhan Lu compellingly argues “parades the (seldom delivered) promise of enduring access to wider communication and better educational and job opportunities” (608), and English (though not English-only) instruction is often posed as offering precisely those promises here.
While I think Lu’s characterization of “English-only instruction” sometimes problematically extends into caricature the practices Bruce Horner and John Trimbur thoughtfully dissected in their 2002 article “English Only and U.S. College Composition,” I like the way she poses English-only advocates against what she terms “living-English users,” who are users of an English “kept alive by many and by many different ways of using it, each of which is itself a living process in-the-forming: informing and informed by the specific, different dynamic, historical and social contexts of individual acts” (608). So, too, do I buy the contention she makes with Horner, Trimbur, and Jacqueline Jones Royster that “notions of the ‘standard English speaker’ and ‘Standard Written English’ are bankrupt concepts. All speakers of English speak many variations of English, every one of them accented, and all of them subject to change as they intermingle with other varieties of English and other languages” (305).
In a bit of curious synchronicity, I picked up a copy of Greg Mortenson’s Stones into Schools from the free book table. I’ll fit it into the bag somehow. In my last post, I started to talk about how the topic of religion seems curiously diminished in many of the conversations going on today about the interrelated challenges of corruption, violence, education, custom, and gender relations in Afghanistan. Mortenson’s project plays direcly into those conversations, given that his organization’s mission is “[t]o promote and support community-based education, especially for girls, in remote regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan.” One view that seems to predominate in Western conversations about Afghanistan is that education can serve as at least part of a solution to the persistent problems of misogyny, violence, and corruption, but I haven’t registered many westerners as talking about how Afghanistan’s religious culture might contribute toward that solution, as well: in fact, I more frequently hear Islam rhetorically positioned as a significant component of those problems rather than as an inextricable part of Afghan culture that those who would seek to help Afghanistan move towards some form of self-sustaining democratic modernity might embrace.
Nicholas Kristof’s argument strikes me as usefully representative here:
The conventional wisdom is that education and development are impossible in insecure parts of Afghanistan that the Taliban control. That view is wrong.
An organization set up by Mr. Mortenson and a number of others are showing that it is quite possible to run schools in Taliban-controlled areas. I visited some of Mr. Mortenson’s schools, literacy centers and vocational training centers, and they survive the Taliban not because of military protection (which they eschew) but because local people feel “ownership” rather than “occupation.”
“Aid can be done anywhere, including where Taliban are,” Mr. Mortenson said. “But it’s imperative the elders are consulted, and that the development staff is all local, with no foreigners.”
I haven’t read Mortenson’s book yet, but the stricture against foreigners is both expected — most development literature points toward the need for self-determination, and that’s the end the Army is working toward in Afghanistan, as well — and interesting, because of the problem of what constitutes development, and where it comes from.
In September 2010, the New York Times illustrated an article about the complex interrelationships among corruption, education, custom, and gender in Afghanistan with a bruising anecdote:
Hundreds of children would gather on the iconic Nader Khan Hill in the capital, Kabul, on a gorgeous Friday in September and fly kites emblazoned with slogans lauding the rule of law and equality for women. The kites, along with copies of the Afghan Constitution and justice-themed comic books, would be gifts of the United States, part of a $35 million effort “to promote the use of Afghanistan’s formal justice system.”
Afghan policemen hijacked the event, stealing dozens of kites for themselves and beating children with sticks when they crowded too close to the kite distribution tent.
Most bore messages about the importance of gender equality, but there was hardly a girl with a kite, although plenty of girls were around. One DPK staff member pushed through the crowd to give 10-year-old Shaqila Nabi a kite; her sister Farzana, 8, had wanted one, too, but a policeman had just swung at her with a stick and she had darted out of harm’s way, and out of sight.
Shaqila raced back to her father, Gul Nabi, a horse wrangler peddling rides. He promptly took the kite and gave it to a boy.
“He is my son and he should get the kite,” he said.
It’s intended to come across as painful, I’m sure, and that’s why the author led with it: the anecdote is full of abject rhetorical appeals to pathos carefully chosen to communicate the challenges the author sees as facing Afghanistan. Still, those appeals to pathos don’t make the article’s representations any less true, and as I’ve processed through the various stations of this CONUS Replacement Center in preparation to go over there, they’ve been on my mind.