Story behind the Passage
Yesterday, my mother drew a remarkable conclusion when talking about a documtentary she had seen about Afghanistan in the 1970s. She said: “They just do not want progress these Taliban. That is always the thing in these countries. Look at Iran, similar story. They were so far ahead many decades ago.” As always, it is quite impressive when mothers make sharp statements like these. No matter how often you might dislike whatever they have to say, they can also say really brilliant things in this simple down-to-earth manner.
This statement about history made me think of my first deep encounter with Afghan American life writing. In my dissertation, I discussed Tamim Ansary’s story. I even remembered quoting this very passage. In fact, I m quite amazed by how much I still remember about the narrative when I look at all the highlighted passages now. Given that I usually remember nothing about the plot, it probably made a difference that I wrote about this book at length in the book.
The previous experience with Afghan American life writing also made me come up with the idea of offering an additional course on the topic. I know that I did not make my professor happy with this spontaneous idea. And I understand that she is worried about the flippant nature I display when it comes to last-minute teaching offers. The thing is simply that we have to separate between my dislike of the current university system and my honest intention to educate future leaders. The former made me almost give up teaching but the latter makes it absolutely necessary that young people in our field now learn about this mess.
“All of human history can be seen, can it not, as an argument between those who try to explode the existing forms and those who try to freeze things as they are.” That is basically the statement by my mother in different words. There is no doubt that this rather black-and-white opposition between progress and stagnation is a helpful explanation why some countries, even some institutions, also individuals, move forward while others stay where they are. I just wonder if we attribute this behavior, or rather this attitude, to the right people. And I wonder whether these people and the groups behind them also share this view.
When we look at all the expert opinions on the current situation of the Taliban, there is all reason to believe that their “ideology” has not changed much. But their organization, their equipment, even their management and education have advanced dramatically over the past 20 years. They are definitely not the backwater guys with no clue and no technology. They know how to deal with digital encyrption, foreign intelligence services, and modern weaponry. In short, they probably know many things which we still do not know. The question then remains: In light of so much that we do not know about them — how can we know what they actually want and whether or not this is extremely anti-progress? Maybe they simply define “progress” in a different way?
Yes, the entire conflict, of course, is a consequence of the century-old dominance of the West which is, in turn, rooted in all the ideas of modernization, secularization, globalization, etc. In short — it is about progress, about “exploding existing forms.” Now that the West is in trouble when facing all the negative consequences of this “progress is everything” mantra — pollution, climate change, mental health, burnout, lack of ethics and spiritual values… there is, I think, a counter movement in sight already. People like moving to the villages again because their kids can play outside, daddy can play with the tractor and mommy can grow veggies in the garden. I wonder if we will not also see a backward movement that can revitalize the churches — not in their traditional forms but in a reformed institutional way.
So, what I am talking about, in sum, is the definition of progress, of course. But “exploding” the status quo already conveys the immense force behind this. And I think, this is part of the problem — it has always been the problem whenever Europeans conquered foreign soil. They “know how to do things” and they let all others know that they have no interest whatsoever in hearing what the other side has to say or contribute. In Afghanistan, of course,with the story of 9/11, this was a particularly difficult starting position for entering any kind of “eye-level” conversation. But we also know that the story of Afghanistan — the drama — started a long time before this — many decades before, actually.
As practically everyone right now, I have no smart answers to all this. But I am convinced that understanding foreign cultures, listening to people in these cultures, makes all the difference for arriving at a less oppositional definition of what progress and stagnation can mean. And I do hope that the students will gain something from this. The thing I hope for most, however, is that they will be the ones actively shaping things. Right now, this is all but self-evident for me. Just because people can use Snapchat and Instagram, it says nothing about their ability to achieve human progress.
In fact, I do not even know why we need progress if we cannot even deal with the present.
“History is a river, except people can live only in lakes, so they dam the current and build villages by still waters — but the dam always breaks.”
Can you build a house in the river?
Maybe we should question the misleading idea that change equals “progress” before more dams break.
1) When you learn about a foreign country and/or culture — which sources of information do you prefer?
2) Are you a change-driven person or do you like maintaining the status quo? Why?
3) How can life narratives such as the one by Ansari make a difference? Where exactly?