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