Sunday, January 20


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


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

Wednesday, January 9

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


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


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.”