Well I meant to put this up just after the new year, but life has a way of happening, huh? At any rate, there was lots of talk as 2016 came to an end about what a terrible year it was. Which I suppose I can understand. Tons of beloved celebrities died. It was a particularly awful election year. Wars and tensions and conflicts around the world and at home dragged on and escalated. There was plenty to be pessimistic about.

If I’m completely honest with myself, 2016 probably wasn’t my personal best year either. I had some real low moments this last year. I feel like most of the major things I set out to accomplish in 2016 didn’t go the way I’d hoped or planned. I struggled with some challenges I never anticipated or expected. But I honestly don’t think I can call 2016 a bad year. When I think back on everything that happened in 2016 I find a lot of good things that I’m really thankful for. I think of time spent with family and good friends. I think of new places I saw and new experiences I encountered. I had so many chances in 2016 to really live life. And yeah, sometimes it was messy and frustrating and tedious. But at other times it was also fun and fulfilling and profound and joyful.

Near the beginning of the year I started keeping a sort of video journal as a new way of documenting things, and I thought I’d share some of my year’s highlights. Obviously, there are plenty of moments not included in this little video. Also, I don’t know anything about filming or film editing (I’m sure that will probably be pretty obvious from the quality and length of this video), and I certainly didn’t use any special filming equipment for this. Also also, I figured it would ultimately be less embarrassing for me and more enjoyable for everyone else if I took out my commentary in each clip and played music over the whole thing. Anyway, it’s cool for me to be able to look back and remember many of the good moments and people that made 2016 pretty great, all things considered.

(This thing is about 14 minutes long. Don’t feel obligated to watch the whole thing.)




In Damascus

A friend of mine posted this video over a week ago. I keep coming back and watching it over and over again.



For one thing, I fell in love with Mahmoud Darwish’s poetry in my Modern Arabic Literature class I took… two years ago (has it really been that long?). For another thing, I’ve wanted to visit Damascus for years. I began studying Arabic in the summer of 2011, right around the time the protests against the Assad government began turning into the terrible civil war that continues today. So unfortunately the gates of Damascus have been closed to me for now.  I hope some day though peace will return to Syria and I will have a chance to visit this ancient city. بإذن الله

A Life Lesson from Linguistics

“I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.” -Pablo Picasso


  These are some thoughts I wrote down a couple months ago and have decided to share. There have been several things on my mind lately that I’d like to learn. You know, new skills, know-how, expertise on subjects I currently know little to nothing about. But that can be kind of intimidating. When you’re brand new to something and first trying to get the hang of it it’s easy to get frustrated and discouraged. There’s so much you don’t understand. There’s so much you don’t know. Often you don’t even know enough about that subject to even be aware of all the things you don’t know about it. It’s easy to feel like you’ll never fully grasp things right, that this thing will never come easy to you.  It can feel like you’re standing in front of a large, solid, insurmountable wall. But I feel like patience and sustained effort are crucial to learning new things and can get you past those obstacles.

  I vividly recall walking into my very first Arabic class several years ago and seeing up on the wall a large chart titled “The Ten Measures of the Tri-Literal Arabic Verb.” This was after my mission, so at the time I was a modestly accomplished speaker of Spanish. Looking at that Arabic verb chart, I immediately attempted to fit what I was seeing into the framework I understood of Spanish verb conjugations. It didn’t work. Trying to do so, combined with my complete ignorance at the time of the Arabic alphabet, left me with a profound sense of confusion and feeling of dread about what I was getting myself into. How was I ever going to master Arabic? Fast forward over four and a half years later and here I am with a perhaps not complete but rather competent mastery of the ideas and concepts conveyed by that beast of a chart. I won’t sugarcoat it: it’s been a long, hard road full of lots of hard work. But at this point those concepts are nearly second nature to me, and I call upon that understanding daily in my current responsibilities. The insurmountable wall has become a broad gateway, opening up a whole world of possibility that was closed to me before. Yes, it’s come after many, many long and tiring days, but my life is so much richer for it. I think much of the best knowledge, wisdom, or expertise is gained along those long, hard roads.

  So I’m determined when confronting a new subject that seems to befuddle and discourage me to press forward with determination and discipline. At some point down the road of life I may look back again and find that coming to understand those challenging concepts has blessed my life.


Yeah. It was something like this.



While I was drafting this post I had so many stray thoughts related to the topic that I’ve ultimately cut out so as not to get too far out into the weeds. I’d love to hear y’all’s thoughts on this, because my own thoughts could obviously still use some refining. For a while now (off and on for a couple years I’d say) I’ve been thinking a lot about feelings. Emotions. Affections, passions, sentiments. Whatever you want to call them.  Apparently it’s an essential part of this whole experience we call being a human.  I spent a lot of my critical development years involved in martial arts, and one of the first things we had to learn were these ten maxims known as the dojo kun.  The first one was, “Harmonize body, mind, and spirit.” That idea played an important role in my early life development, and I still believe that a lot of unlocking our individual potential and happiness comes from developing ourselves physically, mentally, and spiritually.  Maybe this is something of an oversimplification, but for the sake of the point I want to make here that third element, spirit, can be viewed as our emotional self: the inner part of us that feels and responds to stimulus with feeling. While there’s a strong connection between our physical, intellectual, and emotional experiences each is a distinct aspect of who we are. Of those three elements, maybe the one we (or at least I) least understand is our emotional self. Particularly as a result of the crazy vagabond life I’ve been living the last several years, and particularly as a man so often immersed in our modern warrior culture, I very often find myself inclined to simply shut down any emotions that may come. While I believe there is value in stoicism, I think exclusively resorting to it can be a kind of emotional cowardice, and you miss out on a lot of goodness when you’re emotionally closed off to the world. I’d rather not become one of those cold, jaded souls who only feel things infrequently and shallowly.

There’s so much in this world to appreciate. And I think true, full happiness comes from filling our hearts with those good things.  It’s easy for me to get to feeling cantankerous about my feelings (when I have them), because feelings so often run counter to logic and reasoning, and because of manly blah blah blah, but let’s be honest: life has so much more to offer when we keep an open heart to the world. We talk a lot about keeping an open mind, and I’m certainly an advocate of that, but we, or at least I, talk much less about keeping an open heart.  However, I think they’re both probably pretty important. And just like with our thoughts, it’s important not to let our emotions run wild. But controlling them doesn’t mean suppressing them or stamping them out completely.  With thoughts and ideas we often, in some cases to great lengths (the entire world of modern and ancient academia and philosophy comes to mind) examine and analyze them and decide which ones are valid and worth storing away inside of our selves. The thoughts, the ideas that we find to be of most worth are ones that become a fundamental part of our character and personality. Shouldn’t we do something similar with our feelings? Give our feelings consideration and decide which ones are valid, which ones should be developed, polished, and stored away? And conversely, which ones can be discarded and/or dismissed? That’s what I would like for myself. A lot of who I am as a person is centered around a set of ideas that I value and have taken time to study out, define, and refine in my mind.  I’d also like who I am to be centered around a set of feelings that I’ve developed, worked on, and made essential components of my heart: compassion, joy, empathy, trust, friendship, love, wonder, courage.



Peace on Earth, Good Will to Men



A few days ago I was laying in bed listening to some Christmas music while falling asleep and I was struck by this old familiar hymn.  I honestly can’t think of a more timely message for this crazy world we all live in.

I heard the bells on Christmas day

Their old familiar carols play,

And wild and sweet the words repeat

Of peace on Earth, good will to men.

And in despair I bowed my head:

“There is no peace on Earth,” I said,

“For hate is strong and mocks the song

Of peace on Earth, good will to men.”


Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:

“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;

The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,

With peace on Earth, good will to men.”

I am very grateful for my Savior, especially at this time of year.

Some throwback reflections

Lately I’ve been reading through my mission journal when I have a spare moment or two (which is less than I’d like to be honest).  Today I came across something that surprised me quite a bit.  For the last almost five years nearly everything I’ve done educationally and professionally has been centered on or somehow connected to the Middle East, Arabs, and/or Islam.  However, that career focus is a relatively recent development.  When I got home from my mission (was that really six and a half years ago?) I honestly had no idea what I wanted to do with my life.  This whole Arabic, Middle East thing has been something of a happy surprise for me. Which is why I found this excerpt from my mission journal, dated 28 March 2007, so interesting:

The really cool thing [from tracting this one street]… was that we met a Muslim and had a really good talk with him.  I learned a lot.  For example, Muslims too believe Jesus Christ died for our sins and is the Spirit of God in the flesh.  He is one of four great prophets, Moses, Muhammad, and one other who he couldn’t remember being the others, and there are something like 124,000 other prophets, but Muhammad was the last one.  He said their one difference in belief about Jesus Christ is that they don’t think Jesus is the Son of God.  In fact, he said they believe God has no such relationships, no friends, or children, or family.  He also told us a story about the prophet Muhammad, about how every day as he walked to the mosque to pray a woman would throw dirt and garbage on him as he passed, day after day for years.  Then one day she wasn’t there, nor the next day, and finally on the third day when she wasn’t to be seen he went to her home and asked if she was alright.  This man used that as an example of how skewed people’s ideas of Muslims have become, that they are not all terrorists but strive for the peacefulness displayed by Muhammad in this story.  I’m really very interested in learning more about the Muslim people.  I have a feeling they will play a big role in the last days.  I want to understand them.  I think it’s impossible to hate someone you really understand, and there are a lot of people these days who hate them, and I think the key to stopping that is understanding.

(I should take a moment to clarify that from all the time I’ve spent studying Islam and talking with Muslims since then I don’t know that the statement about Jesus dying for the sins of humanity would in fact hold up with most Muslims.  Also that fourth major prophet would probably be Abraham.)

I didn’t remember having written that.  But there it is right there.  My first real conversation with anyone about Islam.  It’s kind of amazing to me.  I had no idea at the time how that idea, that experience, which as a missionary was just one in an endless stream of daily significant encounters with others, would become such a big part of my life. I still believe what I wrote over eight years ago: understanding is key.  So much of the fear and anger and hate I see and hear in media and people around me springs from ignorance.  I feel like there’s a lot I could say about this, but I don’t want to wander too far down paths not related to the point I wanted to make with this post.

I think the point I had in mind for this is that it’s amazing to me the way God operates in our lives.  While I was attending a fast and testimony meeting in Israel at the end of 2013 my professor Dil Parkinson stood up and began his testimony by saying, “It’s easy to recognize God’s hand in your life retrospectively.” Isn’t that so true? This old journal entry is a clarion reminder to me of that hand in my life.


How I Spent Most of March This Year

“Foreign lands never yield their secrets to a traveller. The best they offer are tantalising snippets, just enough to inflame the imagination. The secrets they do reveal are your own – the ones you have kept from yourself. And this is reason enough to travel, to leave home.”
― Graeme Sparkes

This is a throw-back post, and one I started some time ago and am just now getting to finish up.  So far, my year 2015 has turned out to be nothing like I expected it would be at the start of the year.  It has been a whirlwind of unforeseen activity and circumstances.  I expected at this point to be looking for/recently begun some sort of post-baccalaureate work. Instead I find myself still unfinished with school and once again living in the Middle East.  While there is little I can say at this point about what I’m currently doing, I would like to go back and record, for my own sake if no one else’s, some of my adventures in Qatar this past March.


Street view of downtown Doha

So I ended up in Qatar for about three weeks.  I was there to work as an interpreter.  A group of Americans were there to do some training with a group of Qatari counterparts, and I was there to make sure they could communicate with one another.  I was glad to be there, to put my language skills and experiences to use after all my years of study.  I was also happy to be exposed to a new Arab country and culture. I had never really been around speakers of the Gulf dialect of Arabic, which at times certainly posed a challenge for me as an interpreter.  I had also never really seen what I guess I kind of see as “how the other half lives” in the Arab world.  All of my previous experiences in the Middle East had been in relatively poor, developing nations.  Qatar, in contrast, is one of the wealthiest nations in the world per capita.  It’s a tiny little peninsula jutting off the Arabian peninsula into the Persian Gulf, but it has immense oil resources at its disposal.  If you’re a native Qatari citizen you basically have it made, materially speaking, your whole life.  Of course all this wealth is a relatively recent development, and most of my experience in Qatar was characterized by this fascinating dichotomous clash between very conservative desert culture and the progressive development and opulence afforded by wealth.


Take a look at this picture.  This is a photo I took beside the swimming pool of the hotel I stayed at while I was in Qatar.  Yup.  I got paid to live here for three weeks.  I don’t say that in a braggy sort of way.  I say that… well, for a couple of reasons really.  First, I say that because lately I often find myself wondering to myself, “What is my life?” The fact that I was getting paid to stay here sure made me wonder that.  Secondly, I wanted to point out the hotel I was staying at because in all honesty it was a fairly modest sort of place to stay in Doha.  It’s all relative, right?

So there honestly isn’t much to say about the actual work I was doing.  Translating powerpoint presentations and individual conversations was challenging but doable.  Most of it was fairly technical so there was a bit of a learning curve, but by the time we left I was really in the groove.  So much so in fact that for a few days after I returned to the States anytime someone was saying something around me I would be unconsciously forming the Arabic translation in my head as if I was shortly going to have to relay their message to someone who didn’t understand them.  Anyway, the point I was trying to make when I started this paragraph is that the actual day-to-day work was pretty monotonous and bears little mentioning.  Happily for me (and to the chagrin of many of the Americans I was working with), Qataris aren’t particularly interested in an American eight-hour workday, so I had a fair amount of free time to get out and explore what I could of Qatar.


A Pedestrian Crossing sign.  Notice anything different about Qatari pedestrians?

I think it’s interesting that in fact the majority of the people who live in Qatar are not Qataris.  As strange as it may sound, native Qataris are in fact a minority in their own country.  There are loads of foreign workers.  While the actual Qataris are extremely wealthy, there is shocking poverty in the country.  Many of you have maybe heard of the scandals surrounding the 2022 World Cup, which is supposed to be held in Qatar.  So far hundreds (if not thousands) of foreign workers have died constructing the stadiums and other building projects related to hosting the World Cup because of the extremely adverse working conditions they’re forced into.  From what I’ve read it really does sound pretty horrible.  Many of the workers’ only legal grounds for being in the country is to work and employers take advantage of them in terrible ways, confiscating their passports, forcing them to work long hours in unbearable heat, housing them in tiny, crowded hovels, and then often paying them ridiculously low wages – if they pay them at all.  It’s basically slavery.  The following picture is one I took initially because I found it humorous that a sign reading “men at work” was posted next to a group of workers sitting and doing nothing, but then I realized and was humbled by the thought of just what life is probably like for those sitting men.


My experience in Qatar was I think unique in the sense that most people visiting the country have relatively few interactions with the native Qataris (seeing as how they’re the minority and often view themselves as being above most others), but because I was there as an Arabic interpreter I actually spent more time with Qataris than anyone else.  It really was interesting to see what wealthy Arabs do with themselves.  One of the Americans I was with made the comparison between them and the Beverly Hillbillies.  While such an unflattering comparison is one I hesitate to agree with, there really is a lot of conservative desert culture that transfers over into their wealthy lifestyle.  One night, we were invited to join one of our Qatari friends at his desert ranch on the other side of the country (which takes about an hour to drive across).  Just outside his nice, modern home was a beit sha’r (literally translates as “house of hair” from Arabic, in reference to the woven wool fabric it’s made of):


All of the Qataris of course wore their traditional white jalabiyya and either white or red-and-white checkered ghatta:


This particular experience left me with some interesting thoughts about what a rather traditional, wealthy Arab household is like, but I think even now I haven’t been able to sufficiently digest and understand things well enough to offer my ideas.  I’ll suffice it to say that it was overall a pleasant and enjoyable evening out in the desert.


Before the dinner though, we took a bit of a drive out into the desert and saw some interesting things.  The oryx, or maha, is I believe seen as something of a national symbol for Qatar, and there is a nature preserve near the home of our host, so we got to see some.


We also drove out to a traditional desert fortress.  This particular one is a recently built recreation, but it was made following traditional designs and was built using only tools and materials that were available back in the day.


The desert really is a remarkable place.  I’ve said that before and had people look at me like I was crazy.  Call me a naive romantic if you want, something about the austere beauty of the desert and isolated places like this fortress just seem to tickle my soul.


Which reminds me of a quote I’m fond of from Annie Caulfield: “It takes time to see the desert; you have to keep looking at it. When you’ve looked long enough, you realize the blank wastes of sand and rock are teeming with life. Just as you can keep looking at a person and suddenly realize that the way you see them has completely changed: from being a stranger, they’ve gradually revealed themselves as someone with a wealth of complexities and surprising subtleties that you’re growing to love. ”


One of the more unique experiences I had was when one of the Qataris I was working with took us to the races after work one day.  No, not stock-car races, or horse races, or even greyhound races.  I’m talking about camel races.  This guy was very passionate about his hobby of breeding, raising, training, and racing camels.  Yes, that’s quite an expensive hobby. Yes, this guy, like the majority of Qataris, is filthy rich (he married his third wife while I was there.  Practicing polygamy is allowed in Islam so long as the man is able to treat all of his wives equally, which generally means that only fairly wealthy men tend to have multiple wives).  Before going to the track he took us to his camel ranch to show off the finest of camel specimens (yes, I say that facetiously, because, as I’ve said before, camels are goofy, bizarre animals).


Some of his young, thoroughbred camels.  Each of these animals is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.  Watch out, they spit!


The proud owner

We then got to witness first-hand an actual camel race.  It was certainly unique.  If you’re imagining a circular track with a grandstand for an audience to sit in and watch, you’re totally off.  Camel races cover something like 12 kilometers and it’s all just a straight shot, no turns.   Spectators watch the race from vehicles driving along each side of the track.  There are no jockeys on the camels as they run.  The camel owner or someone he has hired driving alongside the track controls a mechanical box on the camel’s back that has a whip to urge the camel along.  So, imagine a passel of the most ungainly creatures God’s more humorous side was able to concoct arrayed in various bright colors loping along down a dirt track, flanked on either side by a menagerie of SUVs that are swerving in and out of one another and dodging lampposts, all while being driven onward by their robot jockeys and you’ll have camel racing.


See the robot there?

With all the forgoing about camels and time spent in the desert being said, I really spent most of my free time in Doha, which is quite the city.  The city sits on the Eastern side of the country, right on the Persian Gulf.  One morning I took a run along the Corniche, not far from my hotel, and snapped this picture:


It really is a beautiful city.  And one of the cleanest ones I’ve visited in the Middle East.  Not far from where I took that picture is Souq Waqif, a traditional-ish market (aka tourist trap.  Still worth visiting though).


One of the things I enjoyed most about Souq Waqif was the animals.  There was a certain part of the market for selling animals and I ran into some colorful specimens a time or two like these fellas:


Another interesting thing I learned about Qatari culture is that falcon hunting is a pretty big deal for a lot of the native Qataris.  Once while walking through Souq Waqif, we came across this unique sight:


That’s right, a falcon hospital.  You didn’t know there were hospitals for falcons? Where have you been living, under a rock? Or really anywhere in the world other than one of the Gulf countries? Cuz that seemed (seems) kinda crazy to me.  But I did go inside and get to see some impressive looking birds, like this guy:


Just like horses and, apparently, camels, falcons can be extremely valuable, and their lineages are closely tracked.  Add that to the list of hobbies I’ll never be rich enough to indulge in (right after camel racing.  Super bummed about that one).

What really excited me though was running into these guys:


So, just in case you weren’t aware, I was pretty obsessed with horses when I was a kid.  And I still think they’re remarkably beautiful animals.  My favorite breed has always been Arabians.  Down in Souq Waqif there are these ceremonial-type police guys going around, and their horses are just stunning.  One evening I was walking around the souq and I came across the stables where they keep these horses:


It was a beautiful moment.  The sun was just disappearing for the day, the last strains of the evening call to prayer still hung in the air, and this corral was tucked away from the bustle and noise of the rest of the souq.  It was the kind of moment that brings to mind the word sublime.

In an attempt to expedite the capping off of an already exorbitantly long and disjointed, rambling post I’ll just put up these last few pictures with minimal exposition.


Have I ever mentioned I love food? If you’ve never eaten at a Yemeni restaurant you may want to reconsider your life priorities.


This was a place called al-Lu’lu’a (“The Pearl”).  Before discovering oil in the Gulf area, one of the main drivers of the local economy was pearl diving.  This place has nothing to do with pearl diving, but it was pretty.


One day I went swimming in the Persian Gulf.  It was pretty cool.


This was a really cool art house I visited in Souq Waqif.  There was some sweet art here I would have loved to buy, but, alas, I am poor.


One night I went to this Indian festival that was going on in Doha (yes, Indian as in people who are from India).  Indian food is really good.


Qatar was a memorable experience.  Ah shoot, I didn’t even get into mention meeting my roommate’s family at church in Doha or how his aunt hooked us up and got us into this one really sweet museum.  And I’ve already started finishing up this post (well overdue) so I’m not gonna get into it.  But that was really cool too.  The world is a pretty cool place.  People can be pretty cool. Life is pretty cool.

Back Home

“Now more than ever do I realize that I will never be content with a sedentary life, that I will always be haunted by thoughts of a sun-drenched elsewhere.”
― Isabelle Eberhardt, The Nomad: The Diaries of Isabelle Eberhardt


There were a number of things I had on my mind during those last few days in Jordan that would have made great blog posts, but I never could quite find the time or will to write it up, and, since returning, military training and the start of a new semester at school have kept me from getting back to it.


I want to quickly put up a post though about how grateful I am to be back in my home country.  I do love this place despite its many flaws and failings.  I suspect my next adventure outside the United States is not too far off, but for now I’m happy to be in the land that I love.  There is so much I have to be grateful for.


Labor day hike with a couple of good friends


So the morning after we returned from our three-day trip I was sleeping peacefully in bed

baby sleeping

When suddenly and without warning I woke up


Because I needed to get to the bathroom IMMEDIATELY (I safely made it). I still went to work that day, but it was an uncomfortable day.  And the following two days I stayed at home. At this point the storm has mostly passed (I think. Hope.) but it involved some… less than ideal moments.  I suppose I’ve joined a long and storied tradition of travelers finding themselves similarly indisposed while living abroad, so I like to see the humor in it.

So as a result of spending an extended period of time sitting in a particular small room of my apartment, this week’s post is much less action-packed and much more reflective than previous weeks. If you therefore want to skim over it, I’ll understand.
One of the things I did to occupy myself was I read a book my roommate lent me titled The Places in Between by Rory Stewart.  The book relates the author’s experiences walking from Herat to Kabul, Afghanistan in the early months of 2002.  It was a really interesting read, and an insightful look into the modern and historical peoples of Afghanistan. Afghanistan is remarkable in its heterogeneity: the diversity of ethnic groups and tribes is striking.  For centuries – no, millenia, Afghanistan has been the highway for conquering armies traveling across Eurasia. The Greeks, Persians, Mongols, and Arabs, just to name a few, have at one time or another swept through conquering and leaving behind permanent tokens of their varied cultures. These tokens consist not only in archaeological remains, but also the very people themselves who are still living there.
It has made me somewhat contemplative as I’ve interacted with others in the last few days about people’s faces.  That’s sounds a little strange.  What I mean though is as the author of The Places in Between moves from one region of Afghanistan to another, he encounters various ethnic groups: Tajiks, Aimaq, Hazara, Pashto being among the most notable.  The book includes simple portrait sketches he makes of some of the people he meets and stays with.  It’s fascinating to me how these people, and really all people everywhere, tie into history.  This man in this village perhaps looks just like a great Persian prince of the Safavid Empire, while this other man in this other village bears the distinctive features of Genghis’ invading Mongols.  Perhaps also because this past week I was preparing to give a talk in church about genealogy, I am just amazed at the strength of the connections between us and our distant forebears, in terms of physical resemblance as well as temperament, life-views, mannerisms, etc. But especially this week I’ve been wondering about faces.  Am I wearing the same face as some distant ancestor of mine? And this man I pass in the street, did someone who looked just like him once walk this same ground centuries ago? I realize it’s silly to think about, because what does that have to do with anything, but there you are.
On a rather different note, another part of the book caught my attention.  I don’t want to give the wrong impression, I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity I’ve had to be here this summer, and I’ve had numerous unforgettable experiences.  However, I’m a little surprised to find that, with just under two weeks left, I’m really looking forward to coming back home. Last fall at two weeks before leaving I was certainly not ready to head back to the States.  But this time I can hardly wait.  I think the difference can be attributed to a few things, but primary among them is perhaps that I’m sick of working in a bureaucratic institution.  As the author enters Kabul at the end of his journey, he relates finding several Western and Western-influenced policy makers working on various projects in the months following the fall of the Taliban.  If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to quote at length from his account:

“I doubted the new policy makers in Kabul understood much of this [the complicating differences between the various tribes and ethnic groups]… I now had half a dozen friends working in Afghanistan in embassies, think tanks, international development agencies, the United Nations, and the Afghan government, controlling projects worth millions of dollars. A year before, they had been in Kosovo or East Timor and a year later they would be in Iraq or offices in New York and Washington.

“Their objective was (to quote the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan) ‘the creation of a centralized, broad-based, multi-ethnic government committed to democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.’ They worked twelve- or fourteen-hour days drafting documents for heavily funded initiatives on ‘democratization,’ ‘enhancing capacity,’ ‘gender,’ ‘sustainable development,’ ‘skills training,’ or ‘protection issues.’ They were mostly in their late twenties or early thirties, with at least two degrees – often in international law, economics, or development. They came from middle-class backgrounds in Western countries, and in the evenings they dined with each other and swapped anecdotes about the corruption in the government and the incompetence of the United Nations. They rarely drove their SUVs outside Kabul because their security advisers forbade it.

“Some, such as the two political officers in Chaghcharan, were experienced and well-informed about conditions in rural Afghanistan. But they were barely fifty out of many thousands. Most of the policy makers knew next to nothing about the villages where 90 percent of the Afghan population lived. They came from postmodern, secular, globalized states with liberal traditions in law and government. It was natural for them to initiate projects on urban design, women’s rights, and fiber-optic cable networks; to talk about transparent, clean, and accountable processes, tolerance, and civil society; and to speak of a people ‘who desire peace at any cost and understand the need for a centralized multi-ethnic government.’

“But what did they understand of the thought processes of Seyyed Kerbalahi’s wife, who had not moved five kilometers from her home in forty years? Or Dr. Habibullah, the vet, who carried an automatic weapon the way they carried briefcases? The villagers I had met were mostly illiterate, lived far from electricity or television, and knew very little about the outside world. Versions of Islam; views of ethnicity, government, politics, and the proper methods of dispute resolution (including armed conflict); and the experience of twenty-five years of war differed from region to region. The people of Kamenj understood political powers in terms of their feudal lord Haji Mohsin Khan. Ismail Khan in Herat wanted a political system based on Iranian political Islam. Hazara such as Ali hated the idea of centralized government because they associated it with subjugation by other ethnic groups and suffering under the Taliban. Even within a week’s walk I had encountered  areas where the local Bergs had been toppled by Iranian-influenced social revolution and others where feudal structures were still in place; areas where the violence had been inflicted by the Taliban and areas where the villagers had inflicted it on one another.  These differences between groups were deep, elusive, and difficult to overcome.  Village democracy, gender issues, and centralization would be hard-to-sell concepts in some area.

“Policy makers did not have the time, structures, or resources for a serious study of an alien culture.  They justified their lack of knowledge and experience by focusing on poverty and implying that dramatic cultural difference did not exist. They acted as though villagers were interested in all the priorities of international organizations, even when those priorities were mutually contradictory.

“In a seminar in Kabul, I heard Mary Robinson, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, say, ‘Afghans have been fighting for their human rights for twenty-five years. We don’t need to tell them what their rights are.’ Then the head of a major food agency added privately, ‘Villagers are not interested in human rights. They are like poor people all over the world. All they think about is where their next meal is coming from.’ To which the head of an Afghan NGO providing counseling responded, ‘The only thing to know about these people is that they are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.’

“The differences between the policy makers and a Hazara such as Ali went much deeper than his lack of food. Ali rarely worried about his next meal.  He was a peasant farmer and had a better idea than most about where his next meal was coming from. If he defined himself it was chiefly as a Muslim and a Hazara, not as a hungry Afghan. Without the time, imagination, and persistence needed to understand Afghans’ diverse experiences, policy makers would find it impossible to change Afghan society in the way they wished to change it.”

I feel like this offers a very broadly applicable concept based on a rather specific case.  The specific case is Afghanistan, and I could say a lot about how the frustrating situation in Afghanistan today is little helped and often harmed by the scores of bureaucrats who are still plaguing the country with their uninformed policies.  The broader concept though very aptly describes so much of what I despise about so many of the formal institutions in the world that are mucking things up with their projects and initiatives and task forces that speak of lofty ideals and aspirations and ultimately accomplish few positive changes, if any at all.  I’ve been spending my whole summer working in just such an institution and it’s maddening to me.  We spend our days typing into machines and pushing pieces of paper from one desk to the other, and from all that I can see, it amounts to so very little.  I can go work at the orphanage for a few days and clearly see ways of improving its operation and the standard of living for both the employees and the children.  Some of these improvements might even be fairly simple to implement.  But when I return to the ministry there’s a maze of procedures to be followed and reports to be submitted before any changes can be made, and anywhere along the line a paper might get stopped on a certain person’s desk and the whole process of bringing about a single, simple, yet significant improvement comes to a halt. I’m not blaming any particular person. The people I work with are, for the most part, very kind, nice, intelligent, well-intentioned people.  But they’re bureaucrats, through and through.  And I hate bureaucracy. So I’m ready to come home and be done with the Ministry of Social Development.
The other thing that somewhat concerns me from Rory Stewart’s account of the international policy makers he finds in Kabul is I think my major at school is exactly the kind of major that produces exactly the sorts of people he describes.  I feel like if all my degree is setting me up for is a career like that I’d be better off dropping out of school now.  Luckily, I think my degree is setting me up for more than just that kind of career so I’m gonna stick it out til graduation.  And then I can follow my own career plans.  Most likely in the Army.  Yeah, the Army.  Cuz we all know the Army is an institution free of frustratingly terrible bureaucratic processes.  I’m gonna go have a good cry now.
Seriously though, I wonder a lot about how to forge a career in the future where I can use these experiences I’ve had to make a positive difference in this crazy world without getting mired in all the bunk.  I think the answer, as essentially all answers do, lies in looking to the Savior.  The influence of His life’s work cannot be estimated.  How much time did He spend working on large-scale, heavily-funded social projects? How many government-sponsored initiatives or task forces did He head up? That wasn’t at all the way He operated.  His impact came personally, individually.  Most often, He ministered to small groups or individuals.  No one’s life was changed by a project proposal drafted by Jesus, but many were changed by hearing His voice, looking into His eyes, and feeling His love and care for them.  I think that whatever my life’s work is, it will work similarly.  Though, despite my efforts, I haven’t had any sort of impact on the orphanage as an institution, I’d like to think I’ve had a positive impact on individual children there.  In the same sort of way, whatever I end up doing with my life, I doubt I will be a power player in large-scale events, but I hope that by living a Christ-centered life there will be individuals who are blessed to come in contact with me.  Certainly my own life has been shaped and blessed this way, by the individual care and attention of good people (family not at all being least among them).
So, not an exciting post, I realize. But such is life after such weeks as my previous one.