It’s early evening near Pole Sorkh (po-lay sork) Square in western Kabul. Although it’s barely 6:00, winter’s cold bare feet have already started their walk across our apartment. Ali, Abdulai, Roz Mohammend, and Faiz have joined Maya and me on the floor of a small room that later will double as a bedroom for a quiet evening of reading and studying. Like most of the others, I’ve cocooned myself in a thick quilt and I’ve begun reading Ha Jin’s novel of the Korean War, War Trash.
Not five minutes into the Prologue, I sensed Faiz edging his way over to me. His voice quiet, almost a whisper, slips out into the room; “Will you study with me?” Over the next fifteen minutes, we worked our way through three short lessons in a workbook written for first graders. Each consists of a simple, one page story followed by a series of questions based on the text. They are extraordinarily simple; they seem almost humiliating for a twenty year old young man. As we study, nineteen-year-old Roz Mohammed shyly carried his blanket and English language dictionary to our corner and settled in. Every so often, he’d shyly interrupt Faiz as he read and say, “Teacher, what does this word mean?”
Across the room, Maya and Ali worked on the meanings of basic words culled from a middle school dictionary. Ali studied intently, pronouncing each word carefully, as if it were an egg that might easily be broken. “Basket. Bully. Bundle,” he would say, repeating each word until he got it right.
A half hour after we began, still only a few sentences into Ha Jin’s prologue, I looked across at Maya and asked, “Where in America can you find anything like this? A cold room, nothing but quilts and a kettle for tea on the floor, and four boys asking us question after question about a language they’re trying to learn.” In truth, this type of thing happens all the time in our small apartment. The five young Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers who live here with their friend and mentor, Hakim, never go anywhere without a workbook or dictionary. After breakfast, one pulls a sheet of paper from his jacket pocket and begins to study. Waiting for a ride, another asks, “What does this mean?”
Across the hall from us live four university students. One is studying electricity; one aspires to be a pharmacist. Two days after our arrival, one of them, a young man named Said, knocked on our door and asked if one of us would like to help them learn English. Maya and I settled on meeting them in their apartment at 7 pm that night. The first class had three students; the second, five; now there are six. We work from copied pages and a white board. Each student actively participates.
Each of these young men, all symbols of the “new Afghanistan,” possesses a thirst that won’t be quenched. In our conversational practice, we talk of how they will shape their country in the years ahead. According to some figures, 68 percent of Afghanistan’s thirty one million people are under eighteen years old. No matter what the old guard wants to believe, the future of Afghanistan belongs to the young. We can only hope they won’t be co-opted by the temptations dangled before them by western “leadership.” We can only hope they’ll grab the reins of power and gallop off in a new direction, one of peace and reconciliation.
If the world you and I inhabit really wants to help these young people, and I doubt very much it does, it will do all it can to slake their thirst for knowledge. It will provide all the help they ask for, and nothing more. It will respect their intelligence and desire to find their own way. These students deserve our respect. They know, no matter what we say, they don’t have it now. It’s about time they do.
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