Sunday, January 20

Libraries

Libraries let children explore and dream. Yet such places are rare in the developing world, and war in countries like Afghanistan essentially ruined such institutions. The number of libraries in Afghanistan has grown in recent years, and yet these still remain inaccessible for most rural children in a country where half the population is under age 18.

Atifa R. Rawan, an Afghan native and librarian at the University of Arizona, has been recognized for her efforts to rebuild and protect the nation's academic libraries, reported La Monica Everett-Haynes of UA News. She has worked with Afghanistan specialists like Nancy Hatch Dupree and the Afghanistan Centre at Kabul University to preserve materials. The program has since expanded to provide training and other support, and The motto of the Louis and Nancy Hatch Dupree Foundation is "Rebuilding Afghanistan, One Book at a Time."

Other more informal libraries are opening in schools around the country, reports the US Agency for International Development:

Many communities and public schools in Afghanistan do not have a library. Students are limited to grade level books provided by the Ministry of Education.

To improve access to quality education services in Afghanistan, a USAID project has disseminated educational materials to rural communities to improve literacy and promote a culture of reading in Afghanistan. Through the project, about 200 libraries have been established and more than 100,000 books distributed around the country. Each library is initially provided with 500 books that are approved by the Ministry of Education and available in both Dari and Pashto.

A blog on Rebuilding the Libraries of Afghanistan also reports progress: Before the civil war in the 1990s, Kabul had six libraries and six provincial libraries, most destroyed and damaged. Since 2001, the country has opened new libraries: "There are now 10 branch libraries in Kabul (including Afghanistan's only prison library at Pul-e-Charkhi Prison) and a further 50 provincial library branches.  Kabul Public library also has a mobile library van which services 12 outlying districts of Kabul."

Funding, corruption and challenges from those who resent education remain issues. The Rebuilding blog continues: "As in many developing countries, the priority for most Afghan librarians at this point in time is simply to be able to organise and manage books and documents efficiently and serve their clientele with a minimum of materials and technology."

Libraries combat the dangers of illiteracy. USAID projects supported libraries and literacy skills for rural youth, and USAID notes that "Through a cross-sectoral strategy emphasizing literacy and the interconnected elements of civic engagement and economic empowerment, young people were granted opportunities to gain functional literacy skills, voice, and increased livelihood opportunities."

William Frej, a former mission director, recalls a rural village in Bamyan Province, amid the Hindu-Kush mountains, as reported by Robert Sauers for USAID Frontlines. The village had a USAID program: "I was struck at this completely isolated village, and there were both boys and girls in a classroom that had a trained teacher - learning math, learning reading skills, learning English," he said, adding that USAID and its implementing partner on the project were the only development groups who had ever visited that particular village."

By empowering individuals, libraries and literacy provide economic strength as well as local and national security.

Photo courtesy of USAID.


Tuesday, January 15

Because...

In Fear of Beauty, the ability to read just one book transforms an Afghan woman's life. She is determined to read the Koran after the death of her son: "I became determined to learn to read the Koran on my own and keep a record of my thoughts. Not that anyone in Laashekoh cared about what I had to say. This project was for me alone.... I wanted to preserve the fondest memories of all my children..."

Reading simultaneously thrills and comforts her, even though she must work in secret. She contrasts her interpretations of the religious text with those of her husband and is amazed at discovering differences. And she wonders if reading the words of other books can lend the same power.

Yes, one book can transform a life - and that's why I love the idea "Because of a book" in the blog Write for a Reader from Shelly B. Conroe. In 2009, She asked me to write about a book that had changed my life and that was difficult because so many books have expanded my heart and spirit and curiosity. But I described a delivery of books shortly after my mother's death when I was eight year old - her last order from a discount book club. Inside was a cookbook, the complete works of Shakespeare and Herman Wouk's Marjorie Morningstar.  The cookbook and Marjorie Morningstar still sit on my shelves, and about the latter, I wrote:

"The book examines the contradictions confronting women in the 1950s, as suggested in the Salon essay by Alana Newhouse, 'Marjorie Morningstar: The conservative novel that liberal feminists love.'  For me, as a child, the book’s message was clear: We lose a part of ourselves when we part with our dreams. And writing is one of the more effective ways to savor our dreams and memories."

All our reading and writing and daily routines have strange, beautiful connections.

Photo D Olsen

Thursday, January 10

Not so fast ...

"The past decade has opened the minds of Afghan women about the importance of democracy, liberty, education, and being active participants in the processes of national politics and decision making," writes Massouda Jalal, former Minister of Women in Afghanistan, for the On Faith section of the Washington Post. 

But as the US prepares to leave Afghanistan, she warns that Taliban-style violence against women is on the rise. "If the United States and our international allies would leave us, they should first ensure that women’s voice in national decision making is strong enough to make a difference," she contends.

The US and Afghanistan cannot afford to abandon investments in a foundation of human rights - and allow a decade of investment go to waste.

The US announced its plans to withdraw well in advance, and that may draw more attention from US citizens and international journalists to Afghanistan and its politics. The globe will condemn every atrocity.

Tuesday, January 8

Soaring

Some students in Michigan compare it to a spaceship. And that's appropriate, because the spirit soars for visitors to the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, inside and out. "We are capable" is the instinctual response. The museum is committed to "exploring international contemporary culture and ideas through art."
 
The museum's home is located suitably on the Michigan State University campus in East Lansing and the architect is Zaha Hadid.  "A Baghdad-born, London-based architect might not be the most obvious candidate for a commission in the heart of Middle America," said Robin Pogrebin for the New York Times when the commission was announced five years ago.

"No name is more celebrated in architecture these days than the London-based Zaha Hadid" wrote Julie V. Iovine for the Wall Street Journal , under a headline "Sculptural Yet Sensible." She adds Hadid's "latest notable effort" is in the Midwest.

Hadid studied mathematics in Lebanon - which undoubtedly enhanced her ability to work and innovate with engineers - and architecture in London before founding her firm Zaha Hadid Architects, going on to become the first woman to win the Pritzker Prize for Architecture.

Lines soaring upward, connecting like crossroads, are an appropriate design theme for a museum focusing on international contemporary art. The building stands as testament that globalization can enrich as much overwhelm contemporary art and also suggests as argued by Jonathan Harris that "Public museums and galleries around the world are themselves increasingly preoccupied with the size and character of their publics, as art becomes a subsidized vehicle for national government and regional powers' 'cultural policy' directed towards a variety of economic ends including 'regeneration,' 'reconciliation,' and 'social inclusion.'" The comment is in Harris' introduction to Globalization and Contemporary Art.

Photo by D Olsen

Teen rebels



An Arizona proposal that would require high school students to take a specific constitutional oath before graduating high school may galvanize young atheists. Arizona House Bill 2467 would require, starting in the 2013-1014 school year, principals to verify in writing that students have recited the following oath before being allowed to graduate: 
 
I, _________, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge these duties; So help me God. 

The filing prompted headlines suggesting the oath would prevent atheist students from graduating. Representatives behind the bill dismiss criticisms, by noting the bill might be revised and that the oath would be routine, similar to legislators taking a constitutional oath.

Article VI of the Constitution calls such oaths into question:  “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”  The First Amendment of the Bill of Rights maintains: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

The oath adds another front in the battle of teen rebellion. Such rebellion is natural in American society, even encouraged by some. Teens are wary of political maneuvering or automatic rituals tainted with hypocrisy. The Arizona oath falls into this category, coming from political leaders who claim to support liberties and then compels high school into a rote oath.  Thoughtful students will question of the purpose of the oath. Is it to test loyalty to the country? Allegiance to God? Punish for students who aren’t citizens or don’t think as the Arizona political leaders do?  
It certainly will do little to reduce Arizona’s dropout rate – the highest in the nation at 7.8 percent.
Parents often discover rebellion extends to attending religious services, according to Connie Rae, author of Hope for Parents of Troubled Teens A Practical Guide to Getting Them Back on Track.  “Requiring a child to attend services isn’t what turns him against the church,” she writes. “It is often the hypocrisy he sees there or in his home that makes the church a shallow mockery.”

Richard M. Lerner in The Good Teen: Rescuing Adolescence From the Myths of the Storm and Stress Years urges parents to be less eager about changing teens than changing their own parenting approach.  He starts the book by reminding readers about America’s youthful ways, captured in books like Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain. Twain noted in his autobiography: “In religion and politics people's beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second-hand, and without examination, from authorities who have not themselves examined the questions at issue but have taken them at second-hand from other non-examiners, whose opinions about them were not worth a brass farthing.”

Photo of Mark Twain from Wikimedia Commons. 

Saturday, January 5

Internet divide


"Lone-wolf terrorism is the fastest growing form of this new kind of terrorism," Gabriel Weimann, professor of communication, Haifa University, write for YaleGlobal. "A lone wolf is an individual or a small group of individuals who uses traditional terrorist tactics, but who acts without membership in or cooperation with an official or unofficial terrorist organization, cell or group." 

Weimann goes on to explain how counterterrorism teams at all levels of government are scrutinizing internet activity to monitor planning and stop terrorists before they act.

The field of operations is rapidly growing, reports Global Finance as internet use continues to grow, reports Global Finance.


Percentage of individuals using the internet
Selected countries, 2011
International Telecommunication Union

Afghanistan     5%
Bangladesh      5%
China              38%
Denmark        90%
Germany        83%
India               10%
Israel              70%
Pakistan           9%
US                  78%
UK                  82%

About one out of three people on earth are online, reports the International Telecommunication Union, an agency of the United Nations.  About 25 percent of those users are Chinese.

Users include both those who pay for direct access and those who access the internet of libraries, cafes or friends' homes. Growth in internet use is greatest in developing nations. "However, overall people in the developing world remain far behind those in the developed world, with only 25% of them online by the end of the year," notes Global Finance.

And despite the percentages in the table above, Asia has the most internet users, at nearly 45%, reports Internet World Stats. Europe comes in second at 21.5% and North America at 11.4%. Africa has 7% and the Middle East represents 3.7%.

And 70 percent of youth under 25 are not yet online. Those new to the internet come at a time when it's easy for authorities to follow trails, when other users - even corporations and nonprofits - are collecting individual data and developing profiles. The internet is unlike other tools of communication, say, the pen and paper, any can be used to connect or divide. Instead, communications online are more impulsive and have a longer, broader reach. Online, the words and ideas of hate are like a weapon, and those who use the internet for nefarious purposes won't hide for long. As said in Matthew 26:52, those who draw the sword will die by the sword.

Photo of young girls in Afghanistan learning to use computers, courtesy of Kate on OLPCs, Todd Huffman and Wikimedia Commons.

Wednesday, January 2

Terrorism

A reminder from Salman Rushdie, Step Across This Line: Collected Nonfiction 1992-2002:   

"The fundamentalist believes that we believe in nothing. In his world-view, he has his absolute certainties, while we are sunk in sybaritic indulgences. To prove him wrong, we must first know that he is wrong. We must agree on what matters: kissing in public places, bacon sandwiches, disagreement, cutting-edge fashion, literature, generosity, water, a more equitable distribution of the world's resources, movies, music, freedom of thought, beauty, love. These will be our weapons. Not by making war but by the unafraid way we choose to live shall we defeat them.

"How to defeat terrorism? Don't be terrorized. Don't let fear rule your life. Even if you are scared.”  

Tuesday, January 1

Weak

Men who fear independent women are weak, no question about it. "Attacks on women in Afghanistan show the weakness of militants and aim to create panic in society, officials say," reports Najibullah in Kabul for Al-Shorfa. Two women serving as the women's affairs director for Laghman Province have been assassinated, one five months after the other.

"Condemnation has grown stronger in the wake of Najia and Hanifa's assassinations," the article concludes. "Not only is killing an innocent woman considered the greatest shame in Afghan culture, but Islam prohibits it, said Khalilullah, an Afghan citizen."

US women service members regularly meet with Afghan women, advising on humanitarian and security programs.

Photo of 2007 meeting in northern Laghman courtesy of Staff Sgt. Julie Weckerlein, US Air Force and Wikimedia Commons

Home

One can imagine climbing ancient  hills overlooking a desert landscape, a river valley, standing with the drifting morning fog, and relishing looking off in the distance. And we think, How can my life ever change?

Of course, that's if we're enjoying a happy period of life.

The computer-generated landscape is courtesy of Terragen software and Wikimedia Commons

Torture

Kathryn Bigelow offers an inadequate, tortured response to the criticism about torture in her film Zero Dark Thirty.

Critics have argued that the film misleads by suggesting torture was instrumental in catching Osama bin Laden. This criticism does not interfere with her First Amendment right to "create works of art and speak their conscience without government interference or harassment" - especially when the producers of the film purport to tell "story of history's greatest manhunt for the world's most dangerous man."

She argues that torture was used in the early years, and it's fine for the film to include these scenes. Most critics have not denied her the right to that depiction, and I've heard no criticism specifically accusing her of endorsing torture. Yet the film is incomplete as long as it does not reveal, even emphasize, the methods most instrumental in bin Laden's capture. She argues that "confusing depiction with endorsement is the first step toward chilling any American artist's a light on dark deeds," and yet she goes too far. The critics did not ask for her to ignore or deny torture as she alludes toward the end of the essay. All most critics have done is point to a major hole in her film and suggest that the story would have been immensely improved had she relayed the true consequences of torture.

Now as a former writing instructor, let me point to the phrases that signal her lack of confidence in this argument.

After labeling the criticism as "brouhaha," she writes "I'm not sure I have anything new to add, but I can try to be concise and clear." Beware of any writer who must assert that he or she is being "clear," an attempt to deny the reader the ultimate judgment.

Bigelow is right on one point when she questions "if some of the sentiments alternately expressed about the film might be more appropriately directed at those who instituted and ordered these U.S. policies, as opposed to a motion picture that brings the story to the screen." Unfortunately, the film's depiction of bin Laden's capture might suggest policies allowing torture have value.

Bigelow tries to distract her readers with emotional references to the victims of the 9/11 attacks and the bravery of the military in providing security. Yet in the end, she admits that torture "was the key to finding bin Laden." And by suggesting that he was defeated by "ordinary Americans" she reminds us that torture was used on ordinary Afghans, Iraqis, Pakistanis and others whose names we may never know.

Bigelow squirms under the criticism that Zero Dark Thirty missed the opportunity to be a great film and story, relaying truth about the human condition.

Mom power

Thank you to the reviewers reading the book and writing about the central themes. 

"The settings of the two books [Royal Escape and Fear of Beauty] couldn't be more different, but both involve the efforts of a woman to take control of her own life," writes Verna Suit for Gumshoe Review. "Both tell their stories effectively, thoroughly engross the reader, and reward with feel-good endings, a fine formula for a novel."

Natalie Papailiou, writing for Shelf Awareness for Readers, calls the book "a compelling portrait .... Froetschel has great respect for the Afghan culture and deftly provides a slice-of-life tale that informs and even surprises."



Excerpt

CriminalElement.com posted the first pages of Fear of Beauty.

The author certainly appreciates the reaction from all those who took the time to read it and comment! Reading the comments is humbling - and I hope the rest of the book meets their expectations.



Point of view

Helmet cameras offer a closeup look at fighting. Like any tool, like the internet itself, they can aid in analysis and understanding or they can be cheap thrill, watched with little thought at all, explains Greg Jaffee of the Washington Post.


In the middle

Soldiers in the Afghanistan National Army are on a quick learning curve - not simply practical lessons in securing their country but maintaining a delicate balance among many, many competing factions. Luke Mogelson embeds with an ANA unit and profiles Lt. Col. Mohammad Daowood, a battalion commander for the New York Times

He asks some of the Afghan soldiers what are they fighting for: " Most of them, when I asked, answered with the word 'watan,' or 'homeland.' But what does the notion of a homeland mean for someone who has seen his ruled by monarchists, dictators, communists, mujahedeen, Islamic fundamentalists and Karzai?"

The ANA troops are being weaned from US support, and a reader can find as many connections as differences between the concerns of Afghans and Americans. The soldiers don't always agree with the choices made by US commanders. They don't always agree with their own government. And they are wary about corruption, which weakens a society from within. Ordinary citizens must be vigilant, both resisting corruption's draw and taking risks by speaking out. Mogelson describes a plea that convinced the Afghan commander at the center of his article to join the effort: "If good men don’t participate, the criminals will take over. We have to reclaim this country from them."


The article makes me nostalgic for writing about Laashekoh, my invented village in Fear of Beauty.  Consider this passage: "Apple orchards and trees with white trunks and bright yellow leaves crowd the basin. Dark canyons branch into the mountains. A single road follows the river deeper into the valley, connecting the lawless foothills of the Hindu Kush to Highway 1, a critical transit route that bridges Kabul and Kandahar, northern and southern Afghanistan." The article is set in the Chaki district of Wardak, not too far from northern Helmand, the province of Laashekoh, per the handy distance calculator for Afghanistan. And another Afghan soldier reminisces about his home: "The river was wide and clear, bountiful with fish. The people were kind; the air was fresh; the fruit was sweet."

The soldiers even crash a wedding.

The Afghan soldiers have a big job - to provide a sense of security by protecting families and homes. But in the end, Afghans are the only ones who can really accomplish peace at home.

Favorite bits


Mary Robinette Kowal asked me to select a Favorite Bit from Fear of Beauty and write about it - and I chose a section in the middle of the book, pages 190 to 193, when main character Sofi recalls the last  day she spent with her father, as she leaves the village where she was raised and heads off for a new life and marriage.

Writers can learn much about the craft - character development, motivation, choices in setting or plotting - with close readings, their own analysis and that supplied by authors. Be sure to check out some of the other intriguing posts, too!


Fashion

"Unfortunately, when rituals are prioritized over spirituality at this tender young age, religion can become restrictive rather than liberating," writes Asma T. Uddin, founder and editor in chief of Altmuslimah. She and other writers of various faiths were asked to debate when does a religious upbringing cross the line from nurturing to oppressive.

Religion is too restrictive when it limits basic human rights, opportunities, education, curiosity - the growth of the human spirit. Religions lose influence and sustainability when their leaders must rely on manipulation, commercialism or threats to win over hearts and minds.

As noted in Fear of Beauty, "There’s no reason to fear comparisons and inquiries that come with good intentions.... Believers cannot fear the nonbelievers. Those who resist questions or comparisons lack true faith."

Children and families do make comparisons in a diverse society.
Responsibility for spirituality rests with parents, maintains Uddin, and people do change their minds. Yet too many parents lack the confidence to examine teachings and make a choice, and for others, religion is but another passing fashion.

Photo of Afghan child in Garmsir, courtesy of US Marine Corps and Wikimedia Commons

Feast

Reading a mystery, getting caught up in a setting along with suspense, I can't help but get hungry for the type of food being described.

And so here is food for thought for readers of Fear of Beauty who might feel the same way and are searching for recipes with pomegranates, saffron, lamb, carrots, raisins, yogurt, grains, grains, and many more, vegetables, fruit, nuts  and spices as ingredients. Here are a few links to recipes from Afghanistan from AfghanOnline.com and AsiaRecipe.com.

And Christi Qazi offers a reminder in Afghan-web.com to prepare for unexpected guests: "Guests are revered and even in families, people often just drop in with little or no notice and to not have food for them would be unheard of even in the most spur of the moment situations."

Photo of  Afghan feast in Jani Khel district by Fred W. Baker III, courtesy of US Department of Defense and Wikimedia Commons.