Tuesday, September 7

Left unsaid

 











“No one is truly voiceless, he whispered, either they silence you, or you silence yourself.”

After fleeing Aleppo and enduring a traumatic journey separate from her family, a young Syrian woman lives in a London apartment from which she observes daily routines of her neighbors. She does not speak and embraces privacy, an instinct for self-preservation.

Silence Is a Sense by Layla Alammar reflects the constant comparisons and contradictions of the refugee experience – the comfort and annoyances of tradition, the discoveries and puzzles of another culture, the curiosity and ignorance and assumptions of new companions, the guilt over fleeing one’s homeland, doing anything to survive and not knowing what happened to those left behind. Tyrants, whether in Syria or London or Kabul, fear comparisons. As observed by the protagonist of Fear of Beauty: “Those who prefer continuity avoid comparison and regard any hint of choice as criticism. New interpretations from others might twist opinions in unknown ways.”   

The protagonist writes her thoughts as a refugee for a small newspaper, under the pseudonym “Voiceless.” She initially resists the editor’s requests for more memories and experiences. “Everybody here wants a story,” she notes. “They all want stories – how did you get here? How long did it take? How easy was it to process your papers? … They want to hear about the hardship and the struggles and the people who died along the way.”  She worries that her more liberal-minded editor and readers have an agenda, wanting “to see, in me, all the hopes and ills and frustrations and struggles and singular stories of some five million plus people. They want me to speak for the chaos of the world…” She finds that “The human need for stories is itself an obstacle to memory. Like our dreams, we are not content with images or scenes or fragments of sensory stimuli… We try to place these elements within a structure that makes sense, wading back through fragments, trying to stitch it all together into a coherent pattern – a beginning, a middle, and an end.”  Stories are never so easily completed, and the protagonist feels “persecuted by the things I remember and by what my mind chooses to hide from.” She suspects that the most common routines may have been forgotten or blended into one memory: “It seems to me that complicit in the very idea of memory is actual forgetting.”

Memories meant to be cherished are reviewed over and over again until they become rote, over-practiced even while blending with new awareness and perspectives. Efforts to vanquish the most horrific memories, piercing again and again with renewed vigor, are useless. All shape her character, and she embraces literature and poetry, such as that of Edgar Allen Poe, because “There is someone out there who has been gripped by fear and loathing as I have.” Emotions may take precedent over actions in the most enduring memories, and it may be possible that life's most beautiful moments escape notice, failing to be preserved by memory.  

London is supposed to be safe, but refugees confront discrimination and hatred, and the character expresses pessimism about the na├»ve notion that education might overcome hatred, an error “repeated on the news, in op-eds, in documentaries, in social media posts. There’s this idea that if only you bombard bigots with enough facts and data and statistics, you can cure them.”  The problem is not lack of education, she maintains, but “fear of the unknown, the Other, fear that things are changing in ways he can’t predict or control.” Of course, change is inevitable for any society, with or without refugees.

The protagonist finds that memories presented as stories lure “the public into caring about things and Others they might not otherwise care about.” Stories carry listeners to other places, helping them understand other cultures and perspectives, and thus do “make migrants of us after all.”  

Some of the most powerful stories go untold. They might be too unbelievable or, in this case, a writer is “terrified that a story will diminish the real, that it will cheapen the experience beyond what I can bear.” The protagonist cautions others to examine the gaps in many tales, the questions that no one asks and the answers that remain hidden inside another person: “That’s where the story is.”

Tuesday, August 24

Need for expertise

 

cargo plane evacuating Americans and Afghanis from Kabul


As suggested by this blog's "Functional leadership?" and "Key to success," the Taliban cannot afford to lose the most talented, educated Afghani citizens. 

Al Jazeera reports today that the Taliban are urging the United States to stop evacuating skilled Afghans, such as engineers and doctors. “We ask them to stop this process,” spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said at a press conference in Kabul. “This country needs their expertise. They should not be taken to other countries.” 

But like most fundamentalists, the Taliban will reject "expert" opinions on sensible education programs and public policies. Skilled agriculture specialists don't want to grow poppies. Modern health providers may support women's reproductive rights and family planning. Computer scientists do not want to collect or abuse citizen data. Weapons specialists won't want to target former international colleagues. Chemists and physicists will struggle to develop religious rationales for scientific phenomenon and limited resources. Engineers focus on math and lack time for theological rhetoric. 

The educated, fully aware of Taliban's past disdain for education, will balk at working for the extremists. "Insurgencies the world over, from the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka to Boko Haram in Nigeria, have sought to attack, resist, influence or control access to and the content of education," notes "Taliban Attitudes and Policies Towards Education" by Rahmatullah Amiri and Ashley Jackson for the Centre for the Study of Armed Groups. "However, the Taliban’s level of interference, and the growing sophistication of its approach, sets it apart. It has developed a series of policies and bureaucratic guidelines governing education provision and established a shadow education ministry, with education shadow ministers at provincial and district level and monitors charged with overseeing schools in Taliban areas."

Key aspects of Taliban attitudes that will conflict with education that creates expertise:

-a preference for Islamic religious education, with the group divided between traditionalists and those who recognize the need for modern approaches;

- reluctance to acknowledge women's capabilities or allow mixed-gender workplaces and teams;

- opposition to donor conditions on human rights and women's rights, even though the country's education system heavily relies on international aid. 

In December 2020, the Taliban negotiated an agreement with UNICEF to operate 4,000 classes in areas then under its influence. "That the Taliban is willing to negotiate a national agreement with a UN agency demonstrates its desire for aid – and international recognition," note Amiri and Jackson, adding that "the Taliban is increasingly seeking to position itself as capable of governing. Some segments of the insurgency’s leadership acknowledge that Afghanistan needs a diverse, modern education system. They also understand that, if they want external recognition and political legitimacy, they will have to make concessions on some of their more hardline positions, particularly on female education."

Taliban policy documents on education are clear - the group intends to regulate, control and influence all forms of education, including "what subjects can be taught and who can attend school." 










True education requires critical thinking, which naturally lead to questions and doubts about fundamentalism and extremism. Ruthless, primitive policies that counter best practices are not sustainable. The writers concede that "Education is inherently political, and governments and armed groups the world over have long used the education system to indoctrinate, surveil and regulate the behaviour of the population." 

The educated will balk at working for a Taliban government that does not value freedom of thought that goes hand in hand with the best education programs. Many skilled Afghanis anticipate coercion, and the International Labour Organization describes forced labor: "work that is performed involuntarily and under the menace of any penalty. It refers to situations in which persons are coerced to work through the use of violence or intimidation, or by more subtle means such as manipulated debt, retention of identity papers or threats of denunciation to immigration authorities."

That is why thousands of Afghanis gather at the Kabul airport, willing to sacrifice all to flee the country.

Photo of  US Air Force C-17 Globemaster III transport aircraft, evacuating more than 600 Afghans to  from Kabul, courtesy of Al Jazeera and Defense One; photo of library, courtesy of the American University of Afghanistan. 


Friday, August 20

Functional leadership?


A handful of western journalists have stayed in Afghanistan to report on the Taliban takeover and the chaotic evacuation of foreigners and Afghanis who supported US efforts over the past 20 years. 

Taliban leaders are desperately trying to send signals to the foreign media that they can improve governance and bring order to Afghanistan. But good governance requires good communications which rely on strong reading and critical thinking skills. 

Leaders lacking such skills will only deliver frustration, as suggested by Ian Pannell reporting for ABC News.

Pannell and his team had permission from Taliban commanders to head to the airport. Stopped at a checkpoint, shown at the 3-minute mark in this video, the Taliban fighters stopped the crew, staring blankly at a letter from Taliban command. Amid shots being fired, the Taliban then turned the reporters away.   

"These guys can't read," said Pannell, clearly frustrated. "The agony of not being able to get to the airport, past Taliban-controlled checkpoints, is the reality on the ground here." 


The Taliban face a big challenge with the demographics of the country's 38 million people. The median age of the population is 18.6. So more than half the people were not around in 2001 when the Taliban last ruled the country and have no recollection of the harsh edicts based on arbitrary interpretations of Islamic writings. Women also make up half the population, and many bitterly oppose Taliban policies forcing subservience to male relatives, arranged marriages at early ages, and bans on a female presence at schools and work, 

One might wonder why the Taliban would desperately try to prevent Afghans who despise such policies - some of whom might organize formidable resistance - from fleeing the country. 

A key reason is that much of the country still suffers from illiteracy and functional illiteracy. Since 2016, the literacy rate in Afghanistan increased by more than 40 percent, reported UNESCO in March 2020 report. Still, the literacy rate is 55 percent for men and about 30 percent for women. 

Such high rates of illiteracy offers an explanation for the "wholesale collapse" of the Afghan military in defending the country against the Taliban. "[P]erhaps the biggest hardship was having to teach virtually every recruit how to read," suggested Craig Whitlock in the Washington Post, and "only 2 to 5 percent of Afghan recruits could read at a third-grade level despite efforts by the United States to enroll millions of Afghan children in school over the previous decade.... Some Afghans also had to learn their colors, or had to be taught how to count."

The Taliban may have overtaken the country - along with a sizable cache of planes and artillery from the US and other foreign governments - but many of their fighters lack the skills to use the high-tech equipment. Hence, the Taliban have blocked borders and demand that neighboring countries return  fleeing Afghan soldiers who worked side by side with US and NATO troops. More than 500 Afghan soldiers fled to neighboring countries including Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, using US-supplied planes and helicopters, reports the Hill. Uzbekistan has since returned some of the refugees, after the Taliban offered security guarantees, reports Reuters. Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan express concerns about admitting refugees, some of whom could be fighters in disguise or extremists, reports Al Jazeera

The Taliban also desperately need many Afghanistan's government workers for now, hoping to harness top minds and talent to sort through an array of policies and finances, everything from tracking down revenues and foreign aid to arranging new partnerships and favorable contracts for infrastructure and the sale of resources like rare-earth materials. 

So, the Taliban tolerates the foreign press for now, striking a "conciliatory tone," hoping to prevent mass panic and protests by emphasizing a smooth transition. The leaders continue to claim they will take no retribution against the many who supported the US presence over the past two decades. 

A handful of courageous people, reporters like Pannell and Afghan citizens on social media, document the tense transition, and Taliban leaders will struggle to appease a populace that has become accustomed to more freedom and opportunities over the past 20 years than the the new regime may be prepared to provide.  

Screenshots of Taliban handling a letter authorizing entry to the airport near Kabul and Ian Pannell, courtesy of ABC News. 

Thursday, August 19

Key to success

When our world offers troubled news, many of us embrace fiction – sometimes for escape and sometimes to understand the human response to massive political, economic and cultural trends. 

The ability to read is a treasure and so is the wealth of stories from around the world.

Read NZ Te Pou Muramura recognizes that illiteracy is a treacherous condition in the modern world, and the not-for-profit group based in New Zealand promotes literacy for multiple reasons, especially functional literacy: 

• Increasing demands of society and work require citizens to “be able to read a wide range of information to function effectively at work and everyday life.” 

•  About 40 percent of adult New Zealanders lack the literacy skills needed to participate fully in the society and economy, and an OECD 

•  Reading, especially for pleasure, is “critical" for a nation’s prosperity and well-being.

•  Reading for pleasure is a more important factor in determining “a child’s education success than their family’s socio-economic status.”

The functionally illiterate do have limited ability to read, write and do calculations, and most do not enjoy applying such to everyday tasks. An OECD survey of member countries suggested that "between 25% and 75% of the respondents aged 16 to 65 did not have a literacy level considered 'a suitable minimum skill level for coping with the demands of modern life and work." The dangers: A cleaning or construction crew might misunderstand directions and mix the wrong chemicals. A caregiver may make a medication error. Customers miss unreasonable terms in a contract for an appliance, car or home. A government official might overlook an obvious policy solution to a community environmental problem. Corruption thrives in societies with low literacy rates. 

Reading - often and for pleasure - is the cure. In that spirit, the organization in New Zealand offers weekly “prescriptions” each week from the Reading Doctor. Louise O’Brien, editor and reviewer with a doctorate degree in English literature, also conducts interviews and answers reading-related questions.

The organization launched the blog in 2020 amid the Covid-19 pandemic, and an early prescription was for books that “soothe and comfort.” At that time, Wells urged readers to re-read old favorites: 

“Books have the power to distract us from the here and now, to amuse and occupy us, as well as to soothe and comfort. Reading is an activity ideally suited to quiet solitude, so, if you’re in isolation, turn to a book for company and reassurance. 

“What’s more comforting than re-reading, returning to a much-loved book, opening covers which feature in our memories, turning pages we’ve dog-eared ourselves, being lulled by the familiarity of a well-known story inhabited by old friends.” 

This week the Reading Doctor offers suggestions for books about Afghanistan. “It’s easy to forget, amidst the chaos, fear and violence of current events, that Afghanistan is also a country of poets and artists, with a rich history and enormous beauty, and that those fleeing their homeland must leave a great deal behind them.” 

It’s an honor for one of my books t o be included in this week’s prescription: “The politics of Western charity and intervention in war-ravaged Afghanistan is the backdrop for Allure of Deceit by Susan Froetschel, in which suspicions of fraud and murder follow the mysterious disappearance of a group of aid workers.”

Fear of Beauty, also set in Afghanistan, explored one woman's desperate quest to learn to read. Banned from classrooms, Afghan women had high rates of illiteracy under the previous Taliban rule, which ended with the US-led invasion in late 2001. Since 2016, the literacy rate increased by more than 40 percent, according to UNESCO in a March 2020 report. Still, the literacy rate is 55 percent for men and about 30 percent for women. Reading is the key to new ideas and success, and Afghanistan's readers will resist bullying, authoritarian efforts to dismiss this essential skill.

Books both inspire and record individual dreams, and offer a reminder about how the Taliban will struggle to convince Afghanistan’s 38 million people that reading and education are worthless endeavors. 

Photo courtesy of Mohammad Ismail/Reuters and the Guardian.



Wednesday, July 7

Minority control

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The United States is withdrawing from Afghanistan and the Taliban is determined to take control. The extremist group does not represent the majority will in Afghanistan, yet its members apply brute force and ruthless religious extremism to bend communities to their will. Many fear the Taliban could succeed with up to 85,000 full-time fighters, compared to the Afghan government's 180,000 troops, trained by US forces. 

Asia Foundation surveys also report that public support for the Taliban and other armed opposition groups has dwindled, dropping from 50 percent in 2009 to 13.4 percent in 2019. 

Various studies have suggested small groups can overturn established norms by reaching a critical mass of anywhere from 10 to 40 percent, with the required level varying depending on circumstances. A University of Pennsylvania professor pointed to 25 percent as a “likely tipping point at which minority views can overturn majority ones.” 

Of course, the constant threat of violence reduces that threshold. 

The United States signed a peace agreement with the Taliban in February 2020 and the group agreed to peace talks with the Afghan government. Delays and ongoing violence hampered those talks.  Today, Iran hosted “the first significant talks in months between the Taliban and Afghan government representatives,” reports ABC News. But the Taliban continue to apply pressure to multiple provinces and key transportation routes. “The Taliban have made relentless territorial wins since April, when President Joe Biden announced that the last 2,500-3,500 U.S. soldiers and 7,000 allied NATO soldiers would depart Afghanistan."

An editorial in the Afghan Times expresses fury about the US rapid withdrawal and the prospect of civil war even as the Taliban advance and newer extremist groups like the Islamic State take advantage of the chaos. 

Women and children have the most to lose, as the Taliban are expected to reinstate controls and eliminate education opportunities. Individuals must decide how to respond as Afghanistan fails to provide security. “Women have taken up guns in northern and central Afghanistan, marching in the streets in their hundreds and sharing pictures of themselves with assault rifles on social media, in a show of defiance as the Taliban make sweeping gains nationwide,” reports the Guardian.
One journalist in her 20s told the newspaper: “No woman wants to fight, I just want to continue my education and stay far away from the violence but conditions made me and other women stand up.”

The United States must take immediate steps to evacuate interpreters and other Afghans who risked all in assisting US troops since the invasion in 2001, as described in Fear of Beauty and many other novels. With family members, this could total 50,000 people. “Our top priority should be getting through this red tape as quickly as possible…,” writes US Marine Corps veteran Michael Wendt for the Hill.

Map courtesy of Long War Journal and Council on Foreign Relations; photo of Afghan interpreter and US soldier interviewing a villager, courtesy of Military.com and USAF Staff Sgt Jonathan)



Wednesday, June 9

Shame

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sexual assault, along with the behaviors that lead to such crimes, can mortify both victims and perpetrators. The boundaries of what is right and wrong may seem vague to those who do not understand the full truth. 

The legal thriller Take It Back examines the case of a disabled teen who claims four Muslim classmates sexually assaulted her. Zara, a legal rape counselor, aids the victim and narrates much of the tale. Jaded and weary with her life and career, she suggests that “Smart people are never happy. Their expectations are too high.” As such, she yearns to appreciate life as it hits and never stop trying for more: “I want to accept that the journey is all there is. That when you get there, there’s no there there and so you keep going, keep trying, keep looking for ways to fill the hole but it will never be filled because we are just human and life has a hole….”

From the start, Zara notices changes in her young client’s story and urges the truth: “Those who tell the truth don’t need to rely on memory.” Yet Zara makes multiple mistakes along the way, and readers join Zara in veering from sympathy to annoyance and back again. 

Of course, all involved are tempted to withhold details that shade perceptions of others, and such decisions reaffirm the horror and shame associated with nonconsensual sex or coercion in general. Set in London, the book also examines reversal of double jeopardy law in England and Wales, the legal principle that prevents people from being tried for the same crime twice, especially painful for sexual assault cases.  Second trials for the same crime have been allowed since 2005 if new evidence emerges, reports BBC News

The over-riding conflict in this book is not the crime itself but the mix of social pressures that collide as some cultures accept some forms of coercion.  The World Health Organization identifies cultural and social norms that support violence that can be found around the world, including developed nations:    

-    Devaluing female children
-    Physical punishment of children
-    Genital mutation
-    Child marriage and forced marriage
-    Lack of power and loss of rights for women in marriage
-    Pressures to marry and bear children
-    Restricted freedoms for women
-    Discouraging divorce
-    Dowry requirements in marriage
-    Rejection of others based on race, gender, economic status or ethnicity
-    Discouraging reporting of rape and other sexual violence
-    Denial of youth bullying and violence.

Kia Abdullah crafts her book so that every detail matters, constantly influencing how investigators and jury members perceive motivation and character. Take It Back details how painful it is to investigate sexual assault and the challenges in enforcing the rule of law, and readers can only hope the courts ease punishment for mitigating factors such cooperation with investigators, remorse and lessons learned as revealed in an exchange by two of the defendants who are most ashamed of their behavior and involvement. "What are you worried about," one asked. "That we'll be found guilty?" The other responds, "I'm scared that we'll have to live with this regardless of the verdict."

Cultural and social norms simultaneously influence levels of violent behavior, and so the WHO briefing “Changing cultural and social norms that support violence” suggests: “Interventions that attempt to alter cultural and social norms to prevent violence are among the most widespread and prominent. Rarely, however, are they thoroughly evaluated, making it currently difficult to assess their effectiveness.” The briefing on concludes: “While it is difficult to ascertain the effectiveness of laws and policies in changing social attitudes, legislation that is enforced can send clear messages to society that violent behaviour is not acceptable.”

Victims should know that any lie, no matter how small, reduces their credibility. As Zara shockingly points out to one character toward the end: “I wish you knew how hard it is to come forward, how horrifying it is when [rape victims are] not believed, how ‘innocent until proven guilty’ means you’re a liar by default.” 

Despite the tangle of lies,  Zara is intent on enforcing the law, and sometimes that requires admitting our many assumptions are wrong.

Thursday, March 11

Trap

 

The British royal family, particularly the newest members, remain under constant scrutiny. Prince Harry, the younger son of Princess Diana and Prince Charles, married Meghan Markle in 2018. Less than two years later, they moved to Canada and then the United States, thus escaping family controls, public pressure, conflicts with staff and relentless bullying from the British press. 

Staff members perceived Meghan, an American of a mixed racial heritage, as an outsider. In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, the couple described their disappointment over other family members declining to lend support in resisting negative attacks on Meghan.  

During the interview, Harry suggested the entire family fears “the tabloids turning on them” and he described palace life as a “very trapping environment,” adding that he did not realize how trapped he was until he met Meghan. 

Vanity Fair reports that the couple’s relationship with the palace is at a low point, with some staffers “comparing it to the period n the early 1990s when Charles and Diana’s staff would brief the media against each other.” Harry's parents separated in 1992 and divorced in 1996. Diana died the following year in Paris, after a car crash along with Dodi Fayad and the driver who lost control of the vehicle. A bodyguard survived. Reports suggest the driver was intoxicated and attempting to elude photographers on motorcycles. 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Parenthood can be a breaking point for individuals trapped by such a system. Royal Escape, a mystery novel about Elena, a fictitious British princess, and her two sons, explores the restrictions and classism from a mother’s point of view. Staff resent her global popularity, striving to contain her every move while playing her two sons off of each other. A system that appears glamorous on the surface institutionalizes inequality and minimizes individual choices. Elena does not want her sons growing up on a pedestal with limited career choices and friendships, prevented from living life as they please.   

Perhaps nothing is more dangerous than questioning a mother's choices for her children or limiting their dreams.

Clinical psychologist Natalie Frank was initially skeptical about the premise of Royal Escape, questioning “how the author would attempt to pull off a plot and characters… too recognizable to fully come across as fiction. And where could the mystery possibly come in?” But she described it as a "must read" with a "magnificent protagonist." 

As I mentioned in an interview for Irish World in 2009, “I hope my book reflects the challenges in a fair, yet thought-provoking way and that readers will better understand why some members might want to break away…”

Photo courtesy of VOA. Read the Kindle edition of Royal Escape.