September 03, 2010
Yesterday I had the top older boys in class, Omid, Dariush, Farid Gul and Ali. They took a quiz on proverbs from Kenya and the history of the Panama Canal. All four of them got 100% correct. There has been a shift in their attentiveness to their studies. The exam was not particularly easy. There were fifteen proverbs of which I gave the opening line in English that they had to finish from an extensive list of possible endings. For the history section a one-page essay had 15 words missing they had to fill in correctly. I have gotten their comprehension skills where I want them to be; now it is time to graduate them to composition. The degree to which these boys have developed cannot be underestimated. They are going to be a powerful force in their society, given they are male and they are worldly, astute, and respect women as their equal. Every time they arrive at class we clasp hands and hug one another. There is a sense of comradeship as if we are all survivors of a close call with forces of nature. When I go to the boys orphanage I am the same teacher that teaches the girls, but there is a facet to being in an all-boy realm that harkens me back to places woven into my spirit, of climbing trees, hunting, running, building, tackling, taunting and teasing. The strangeness comes with the fact that the boys in Sitara III are not youngsters any more. They are fourteen to seventeen year olds, and what flies in the face of all my experience is there is no preponderance of girl-craziness. In fact there is none at all. I do not know if this is good or bad, but it does seem to strengthen their ability to have and nurture relationships with anyone- girls, adults, children, based on something more than sheer impulse.
After the quiz the boys and I read a traditional fable from China called The Magic Pear Tree. In it a respectable, hard working farmer is selling his pears in the village. The pears are “luscious”. Along comes an old monk who asks the farmer for one of his beautiful pears. The farmer draws a line, most likely not feeling too deeply about it one way or the other. But the monk persists, driving the farmer further and further from the notion of relinquishing even the smallest of his pears. “Bystanders” assemble and begin to side with the monk. “Just give the old man a pear and he will go away!” But the farmer is now making a point; this monk never does anything for anyone, he never works, he is lazy and all he does is pray. Why should he support him? One of the bystanders buys a small pear and gives it to the monk. But the show is not over. This monk eats the pear and buries the pit. “Miraculously” a tree grows that bears fruit right before their very eyes. Everyone is given a pear and the monk walks away, happily. But the joke is on the farmer, as the charismatic monk has slight of hand stolen all the pears from the cart, making it look like they had grown on a makeshift tree. The farmer is left humiliated, while the bystanders laugh at him.
This simple story is full of conflicting sentiments, which is good for discussion. Ali and Omid argued for the monk. An old man deserves respect, and the farmer was being stubborn and selfish. Farid Gul and Dariush stood up for the farmer, who had a valid point to make and had every right to refuse the monk, who would simply go to the next person and the next, promising nothing in return, not even a little wisdom, just as he had done his entire adult life. This debate led us to the subject of beggars in the streets of Kabul, who do you give to, who do you not. The boys all agreed that it depended on the beggar. A little child, a widow, a man on crutches are all without thinking going to elicit some money from them. A teenage boy with nice sneakers is not.
How people give and who gives has been the topic of many unscientific studies. They like to maintain the ironic conclusion that the poorest households in the United States give on average 4.3 percent of their income while the richest fifth give just 2.1 percent of their income. But of course, if that 2.1% comes to twenty-one thousand dollars from one person for one cause, while that 4.3% comes to one thousand, it seems like a comparison that is hard to judge. It is true Christian conservatives in the heartland give significantly more percentage wise of their income than liberals in San Francisco. This is indicative of the philosophical divide now raging in America, those who trust and believe the government should use tax dollars to help those who cannot help themselves, and those who don’t. Regardless of this issue, across socio-economic strata two-thirds of American give. Unarguably they give more than any other nation, both in total amount and percentage of GNP. Yet in conjunction with this giving, Americans know so little about what they are giving to. America has given several billions of dollars to Afghanistan, for example, while 73% of us do not know where Afghanistan is located. The longest my country has been involved in a singular war, 9 ½ years, and we don’t know where it is? It doesn’t take much guesswork to imagine how little else Americans know about Afghanistan or its people. This is a peculiar conjunction, this giving without knowing. A photograph of a starving child with flies buzzing, a veteran begging in the street elicit money even though that organization feeding that starving child sucks 45% of that dollar for advertising and high salaries and $80,000 SUVs, and that veteran spends that dollar on a bottle of wine that sinks him deeper into oblivion. Why do we give to the bucket a few coins, or our tax dollars to the government? A sense of civic duty, an act of faith? Whatever the case, it can’t be because we know the actual path of that money.
Then there are those who give because they themselves were the beneficiaries of giving. These are people who do not get much press. More glamorous are the ones who become wards of the state, the “welfare mother” that was held up by politicians to scream bloody murder while 90% of welfare went to corporations that could not compete the old fashioned way. But the reality is most people who have been helped, help. This is why I think the poor in America give more proportionately in income and in numbers than the middle class, and the middle class give more than the rich.
Many of the children of AFCECO go back and forth between the world of the village and that of the orphanage. The ones who don’t come from a place even more destitute. English is a by-product of what I teach them. We learn the engineering problems of a canal and the philosophical problems of giving, and we learn the ethical implications of improving the world of commerce at the expense of thousands of inhabitants, or standing up for your rights as a hard working individual in the face of popular dissent. We know where the Statue of Liberty stands, who Mao and Gandhi were, what coffee means to Kenya and why Alexander, the greatest general in human history lost the faith of his soldiers. Mostly, though, I teach these children who have seen death in all its manifestations why I care about these things, rather than that they should care. When Alexander dies not from glorious wounds, but from overconsumption of wine and meat, when Roxanna, nine months pregnant with his son closes his eyes to “catch his parting soul”, I am crushed by the tragedy, the irony and the strength and courage and adoration. I want my students who already know viscerally so much more about life than I ever will why it is I am here, that it is not because of a governmental or religious mandate, not because I am a particularly giving kind of guy, not because I feel deeply and empathetically sad for them, but because I find life and history and this planet are all so damned interesting, and to contain it like a stoic on a rock overlooking the sea is just not going to do it for me. Some people find my sentiment akin to a born-again experience, and that I in essence am no different than a missionary. If God is a white whale crashing into Ahab’s ship, if God is moving faster than the speed of light as well as the particular shade of purple the exoskeleton of an urchin displays in the early autumn sun, then I suppose I am somewhat of a missionary in spirit. Other people have accused me of imposing some sort of neo-colonialism upon yet another poor culture. In the sense that I understand fully that I get more out of this experience than I probably give, this also must be true. But without compunction I say that in the final analysis I am only seeking love. When those boys appear at the top of the stairs, when they automatically smile and almost laugh at just looking at my expression, when they grab hold my hand and wrap their other arm around my shoulder, when they eagerly await what “miraculous” part of the world I am going to visit next, I am filled with it. My heart beats against my chest, my pulse quickens, I am alive. This is the only way for me to live, and this I pray is how it will be when I die.
So many times I feel powerless. I have never been more powerless than I am now. Here my cultural identity is stripped away layer upon layer. I must ask for everything to be done for me. Decisions and priorities are all directed by the needs of others. Back home I have nothing waiting for me, no career, no retirement, no house, a small savings account, a thirteen-year old car. I am not twenty; this is not exactly a carefree moment in my life. The only power I have is in my classroom, and even there I constantly fight against wielding it because in essence to teach is to empower. I miss stonework. I miss splitting shingles and stacking firewood. I miss stopping by a pub because I feel like it, and I miss making and spending money. It may be that I write these weekly entries out of a desperate need for power. But I think whatever this desire, this need, it is overruled by a more practical motive. Though much of this chronicle is a study of the thoughts and memories and trials of a man more than tales of the children, I hope that the reader understands the sentiment is one of a sacrificial poet putting himself up on the chopping block for study, not for self-interest. Though it is a curious life, in essence it really is no more curious than any other. It is the universality I reach for, not some sense of speciality. I am, after all, an American, and it is Americans I wish to help as much as the people of Afghanistan.
The ice cream man is passing by. Today his music box plays Beethoven’s Fur Elise. He has been the one constant here in Kabul, ever since my first day in Mehan a year and a half ago. He is like that buoy tinkling its bell in the distance, a sentry, a guide and witness to all the tides calm and not so calm that pass beneath its beam. I would go to him and purchase a vanilla chocolate sandwich, even though in theory it could place me in dangerous waters. I would ask him what part of Afghanistan he is from. Most everyone here is from somewhere else. He would ask me if I am from England or America. I would make him laugh by saying “Ma az Kabul hastum!” He would not be in a hurry to move on, and we might talk about the future of Afghanistan. He would shrug his shoulders and smile the kind of smile you give when life is just plain too crazy and perplexing to argue over.
“We will see,” he’d say in English, because almost everyone in this city knows this phrase, more than okay, more than see you later.
We will see.
Prometheus (Un)Bound, adapted from the tragedy by Aeschylus and directed by Ian Pounds
(Note, though this is the English version, the play was performed in Dari)
Sahar as Zeus
Sorab as Hermes
Maria as Prometheus
Neda as Power
Parwana as Ideology
Sitiza as Industry
Shogofa as Pandora
Pashtana as Lo
Farzana as Oceanus
Frishta as the Eagle
Mohsan as Lo’s son
Oceanids: Nagina, Nabila, Mursal, Farida, Lida, Mahbooba, Medina, Khalida, Adila
A bare, open stage. Oceanids file on, masked. Their king, Oceanus enters and addresses the audience.
OCEANUS: My name is Oceanus. I rule the oceans, rivers, lakes, and rain. I am the oldest God. There has always been war. The longest war is between men and their gods.
OCEANIDS: The Great Game.
OCEANUS: Because men wanted to be Gods-
OCEANIDS: Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane…
OCEANUS: Zeus, the King of Gods wanted to destroy men.
OCEANIDS: Mighty Zeus! Mighty Zeus! Mighty Zeus!
ZEUS: All men must bow to me. On punishment of death each man must sacrifice his fattest lamb.
OCEANUS: Men acting like Gods, Gods acting like men: this war has lasted so long it is impossible to tell who is God and who is Man. But there is hope. One who is not God or man, one who believes in peace. Her name is Prometheus!
PROMETHEUS: Will it please Zeus to choose what lamb he will eat?
ZEUS: Who is this fool? Does she know who I am?
HERMES: This is Prometheus, a minor Goddess.
ZEUS: She has me choose between the stomach and the fat. Do you mock me, woman?
PROMETHEUS: I would never mock the king of Gods. I offer you a simple choice, with only one request: promise that the one you choose is the one all men will sacrifice forever in your name.
ZEUS: This I will do without thinking. I choose the fat of the lamb.
HERMES: Mighty Zeus, you have been tricked. Hidden in the fat is a bone, and hidden in the stomach is the finest meat!
OCEANIDS: (Laughing and cheering.) A bone for the king of Gods! A bone for the king of Gods! All hail the king of Gods!
ZEUS: Hermes! Who is this woman? Not some minor Goddess.
HERMES: Mighty Zeus, I do not know. She lives not in the land of Gods. She prefers the land of poor and suffering human beings.
ZEUS: We will break her spell over the people. Take fire from the poor and suffering. They may keep their meat, but they will never cook it!
HERMES: At once, Mighty Zeus!
1st OCEANID: Hermes, the messenger of Zeus, stole fire from the people.
2nd OCEANID: She hid it in the land of Gods, but Prometheus did not fear Zeus.
3rd OCEANID: She disguised herself as a servant. She cooked a feast for Zeus, one so full of fat that Zeus fell into a deep sleep.
1st OCEANID: He hid fire in a pot and returned it to the land of the poor and suffering.
PROMETHEUS: People of the world, I bring you fire! Will you write your destiny, or will you let the Gods decide how you live?
OCEANIDS: We decide our destiny! We decide our destiny! We decide…
HERMES: Mighty Zeus, Prometheus is more popular among humans than you!
ZEUS: Do you think I care if I am popular? I will hurt Prometheus where she lives. She will watch her people suffer more. I will make a woman of her likeness, and I will have her deliver a gift to the world. A gift from the Gods no man will ever forget! Pandora!
PANDORA: Yes Mighty Zeus!
(music of Steel Drum)
PROMETHEUS: Who are you, and where do you come from?
PANDORA: I am Pandora. Like you, I have escaped the house of Zeus. I only had to promise I would deliver this gift.
PROMETHEUS: Do not deliver this gift!
PANDORA: Why, Prometheus? It must be something powerful. It is from the Gods! I want my freedom. Zeus promised me. All I need to do is deliver this gift.
PROMETHEUS: I do not know what gift this is, but no one must ever open it!
PANDORA: I will look inside, and if it is bad I will destroy it!
(Opens box. Greed, Poverty and War appear)
PROMETHEUS: What have you done!
PANDORA: Who are you!
4th OCEANID: I am Greed!
5th OCEANID: I am War
6th OCEANID: I am Poverty!
PROMETHEUS: Pandora, there is one thing left in this gift. It is blind hope. Please keep it for yourself. The damage is done. To give the people blind hope would be more cruel than all the suffering you have just given the world.
(music louder, then fade off)
ZEUS: All men and women bow to me. All Gods bow to me. I am not finished with Prometheus. Hermes, assemble Industry, Ideology, Power! Bring them to Prometheus. She is struck with despair. Take her to Mount Olympus and chain her to the stone. Each day an eagle will come down from heaven and eat her liver, and each night the liver will grow back. Again and again she will suffer this torment. Forever!
(The three go to Prometheus, stand around her, she is oblivious, grieving.)
POWER: Industry, have you ever seen such sadness?
INDUSTRY: Never. I cannot do this dirty work.
IDEOLOGY: You are weak! You must obey the command of Zeus!
INDUSTRY: Prometheus, speak to us. Tell us why you anger Zeus.
IDEOLOGY: You see, she does not speak. She is worthless.
POWER: Prometheus, why do you care for humanity? Power is the only thing that controls destiny. Not the human heart.
HERMES: Why do you wait? Take her away now!
(they put her on a stretcher and carry her away to the place where she is to be tied)
IDEOLOGY: How are you now, Prometheus? You are clever, but without Power you cannot break your chains, and without Industry you cannot obtain power, and without Ideology, you will never control Industry.
PROMETHEUS: I am not interested in your world.
IDEOLOGY: You see, she does not believe in anything.
INDUSTRY: The deed is done. Leave her alone.
POWER: I agree. She has nothing to say.
PROMETHEUS: Give your God a message. Tell him there will come a day I will be released, and that day will be the day you, Ideology, no longer control Power, and you Power no longer control Industry, and you Industry no longer work for the forces of poverty, greed and war.
IDEOLOGY: This day will never come.
PROMETHEUS: There is no greatness in living forever. No greatness in having a wall between you and the world.
POWER: No greatness, Prometheus, in being chained to a stone.
HERMES: Come. We must go. Do not listen to her!
PROMETHEUS: You of all have most to gain from what I say, Hermes. Your boss will reward you.
HERMES: There is nothing you know Zeus does not already know. Good-bye Prometheus. There is no mercy for those who try to change their own destiny.
PROMETHEUS: Destiny! Ha! Come, destiny. I welcome you. Wrap your arms around me. Squeeze me until I cannot breathe. Come! Do your worst, and when the day is over we will see who is king and who is not!
(eagle approaches, cuts Prometheus, removing her liver. Prometheus screams)
OCEANIDS: Poor, poor Prometheus!
1st OCEANID: Day after day, year after year the Eagle tortured her. Every time the Eagle came Prometheus said the same thing:
OCEANIDS: Come! Do your worst!
2nd OCEANID: Until one day a beautiful woman appeared.
OCEANIDS: Her name was Lo
LO: My name is Lo.
PROMETHEUS: I know.
LO: How do you know? If you are so wise then answer three questions: where do I come from, why am I here, and where will I go?
PROMETHEUS: The truth will destroy you, so I will tell you a lie.
LO: This is not an answer!
PROMETHEUS: Whether it is true or not, an answer is an answer.
LO: Then answer me and I will decide if it is true.
PROMETHEUS: I have nothing to lose. You come from Zeus. He wants you for his wife. You are here to ask me if you should submit to him…
LO: And the future?
PROMETHEUS: From you will spring a son more powerful than Zeus, a son who will release me from these chains and throw Zeus from his throne.
LO: You lie!
PROMETHEUS: He is listening. It is impossible to lie to God.
HERMES: Mighty Zeus, I have news…
PROMETHEUS: Already He is turning the wheels of destiny. Yours, and mine.
LO: Stop! You are scaring me!
ZEUS: Call off the wedding! I will not see her again. Turn her into an ugly woman, send her to Africa. Have her marry a man who has nothing.
OCEANIDS: Poor Lo! Poor Lo!
PROMETHEUS: Well done mighty Zeus! Tell me, who controls destiny? Is it you or me? The lie is in your mind, Zeus! She will bear a son. The father will be a poor African. It is this son I speak of. It is this son who will be more powerful than you. He will release me, and on that day, you will fall from heaven. You have sealed your own fate, Zeus, by listening to me.
(Eagle approaches again)
Come, do your worst!
OCEANIDS: Come, do your worst! Come, do your worst…
(ZEUS screams in anger, PROMETHEUS in laughter and pain, the OCEANIDS swarm around them repeating their words, the EAGLE cuts into PROM.)
OCEANUS: It was a time when men wanted to be God, and God wanted to destroy men. It was a war without end. The will of God is strong, and so is the spirit of man. Then came Prometheus. Her power is the power of the moon. Without her, the oceans will not move. She brought fire to the world. But fire has two blades. One of life, and one of death!
(Prometheus starts to laugh)
See, here she laughs. Prometheus, have you gone crazy?
PROMETHEUS: Crazy? Yes! Crazy with joy!
OCEANUS: Poor Prometheus, she has gone truly mad.
PROMETHEUS: Laugh, Oceanus. Cry! Feel! Or what you do not know will soon bring you down along with Zeus. That would be sad, it is nice to have a God such as you.
OCEANUS: How do I answer her? She talks in riddles. Yet she makes me feel.
PROMETHEUS: Because, Oceanus, I have not only given fire to the world, but when you were not looking I have given the blade of life! Reading and writing…
OCEANIDS: Reading! Writing!
PROMETHEUS: Agriculture, medicine…
OCEANIDS: Agriculture! Medicine!
OCEANUS: But Prometheus, you are feeding this war. Those are the means for man to become God.
PROMETHEUS: No, Oceanus. The goal is not to live forever. The goal is to feel alive!
(Prometheus laughs. Music. Slowly the Oceanids swarm around Prometheus and then circle Zeus. Hermes runs away in fear. Power and Industry come forward. Lo appears with a son. Her son frees the chains from Prometheus. Ideology cowers in the corner. Zeus faints. Ocenids carry her away on a stretcher.)
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