The School With 5,259 Pupils
Monday, 12 May 2003
As had been agreed with the Woman and Society’s director, I went over to the TV station this morning to go along with him to a location shoot and ‘see the problems first hand’. I was in the director’s office at 9 o’clock and met him and his female assistant, who still looked slightly unwell.
I was told they needed to get a camera and organise transport. There was no point in asking why this had not been the day before, when the whole afternoon could have been spent going from one office to another until something was done. These are not issues that have cropped up overnight and cannot be resolved in a few minutes. What was important was that I could see evidence of what I had suspected: that some of the problems have less to do with lack of money, than with working practices that need to be changed … gently
I was very kindly offered a seat and sat down for about fifteen minutes before the director came in and asked a colleague for a piece of paper to be used as a requisition form to get the camera. A strip of paper was duly cut from a partly scribbled-on A4 page, which my friend showed me as yet more evidence that they had nothing to work with. I was given a cup of tea, made in an aluminium kettle heated on an ancient electric heater dangerously placed in one corner of the room.
By around 0930 my friend came back to report that although the camera had been booked, there was no microphone to go with it, nor was there an office car that we could use. He had to work on both of these. He also explained that a mike would cost only about 300 Afghanis, or 5 pounds, but his department could not release the money. Other departments, such as military broadcasts, had priority in booking equipment and they had got the mikes.
By 0945, I had started a conversation with a woman producer from the children’s programmes department who had brought her sweet, seven-year old son, Ferdaws, to the office with her. She later explained that some mothers working at TV could not afford, or would not trust, the kindergarten at the office. She also gave an account of how until about 12 years ago all producers would be recruited after completing university education and would continue to be trained on the job.
This had been disrupted during the faction fights of the mid-90s and gotten even worse under the Taliban when television was stopped and the building was used as accommodation for the Taliban soldiers. Equipment and stocks of films and programmes had deteriorated due to lack of maintenance and care, and staff had gone out of the station or the country. Now, she said, ‘anyone could walk in from the street and start making programmes’.
By around 1015, I was wondering if there was any point in my staying there, because nothing was ready and any interviewees they had booked were bound to have gone away. But then, I had no other pressing engagements; my main responsibility was indeed to find out what problems they were suffering from; and I had promised to be with them from 9 to 12. So, my time was in fact theirs and I had to stay there. And am I glad that I did.
By 1030, my friends came back to announce that there was no mike – but they could shoot close up and get reasonable sound from the camera’s ‘wedding mike’. There was also no car, but we could catch a taxi. After a brief discussion as to whether we would be allowed to the school where they were going to film ‘the problems’ of the women teachers, a decision was made that we had to go. And we did – in a taxi that charged us 20 Afghanis for a 15 minute ride – dirt cheap, especially since another taxi that brought us back, and took me a bit further charged me 50 Afs!
We got off the taxi in an area near the airport called Qal’a-ye Wakil, or Wakil’s Fort, named after one of the many manor houses in Kabul that have now disappeared. My friend showed me a sign that said ‘Azizi School’, supported by a French aid organisation. There was not much else to indicate that there was a school around. Behind the sign, to the right, there was a field of barley or something, and to the left an empty, barren piece of land.
Behind the vacant lot a tarpaulin could be seen, spread over a metal frame, the type you would see covering the stalls of a flea market. And behind the field, there were the ruins of a mud-brick building, the size of a British country house, with black, rectangular holes where, at an indeterminate time in the past, there may have been windows with glass panes. I thought my friends had come to exactly the right spot. There would be no shortage of problems here.
I got the shock of my life when we got within about ten meters of the tented frame and the remains of the mud-brick building. At first, I saw about two hundred children sitting under the tarpaulin in groups of 35-40, each with a young woman teacher using something like a board to write on. Then there was the most beautiful sound I could imagine – the voices of all these children, and many more inside the house that once had been – reciting, though it was not clear what. Later on, it became clear that each group was being taught something different, so their voices would get mixed up in a distance, but each group seemed capable of following its own subject – pretty much like my director friend and his colleagues in their TV edit suite where five loud programmes were being edited at the same time.
Inside the ruins, I saw what I can only describe as a miracle: hundreds of children – boys and girls – in ‘classrooms’ which for many of them meant no more than a straw mat spread on the ground which was covered in stones; others were huddled in rooms without doors, or a single glass pane on a window and, of course, without electricity. Some rooms looked like coal storage spaces I have seen in some houses in Britain – cramped and dark.
But from inside every room, dozens of bright, eager eyes would stare at you. There were smiles on all the faces, and the kids were obviously enthralled by what was being said. There did not seem to be any outside force keeping them in the school – either in the small classrooms where girls and boys were taught in separate groups – or out in the open, where separate groups were sitting next to each other. Some ‘classes’ did have blackboards; others were using a black, painted, patch on a wall.
Following my friends as they were shooting various parts of the school, I got into a conversation with a lady who seemed to be a senior teacher. ‘How many students are there at the school?’ I asked casually. ‘Seven thousand,’ came the reply. Unable to believe my ears, I asked again, and got the same reply, with the added piece of information that not all the 7,000 came to school at the same time. There were three shifts: 7am-0930; 0930-1230; and 1230 – 1630. At the time we were there, the second shift was on with 51 classes, and some 2,000 students.
The director of the school, a man with 34 years of experience as a teacher and a monthly salary of $40, later corrected the number of students as 5,259 – still a respectable figure. Some 2,000 are girls, studying up to grade 6, and the rest are boys who can go up to the 9th grade. The school has 136 women teachers and 26 men. The subjects include Persian, Pashto, Qor’an, maths, history, geography and science.
The school has had the same, rented, premises for more than thirty years. The lady senior teacher said that before the Taliban, she and her colleagues had carried on teaching in the mid-90s in spite of the rockets that were flying around – the area being particularly sought after because of its proximity to the airport. Under the Taliban, girls were banned from the school, but boys did carry on, with a much more limited syllabus. The director said he and his two other male colleagues on the management team – each of them with more than thirty years of experience as a teacher – had started wearing beards under the Taliban.
Being from the Pashto heartland in south-eastern Afghanistan, the three men appeared suspicious of me because of my being Iranian. Some questions from their side and some statements of intent form mine seemed to give them a degree of confidence in me, although when they learned about the UN salaries, it was clear that profound questions were developing in their minds about the unfairness of the world.
At about the same time, in another part of Kabul, during a demonstration over pay by a group of workers, a vehicle belonging to the German clinic, the best medical facility used by the UN, was attacked. The protestors also shouted slogans against the Taliban and against Mr Karzai’s recent forgiving statement about them. The way things are developing, there could be such attacks and UN drivers have been warned to keep away from all troubles spots – if they can be spotted in time.
The best we can do, of course, is to do the best that we can do and hope that the result will at least relieve our own conscience, if not the distrust and anger that our privileged status could attract – perhaps as a result of manipulation. As part of my own efforts, I have been encouraging all my media colleagues to cover the miracle that is the Azizi school, so that it could be given much more support than it receives now – one ‘donation’ to the school had been a truckload of stones that were spread in the courtyard so the students would not have to wade in water in the rainy season.
None of this is going to make an immediate dent in the unfairness of the world, but maybe some of those sweet children in the school would get more books and pencils; perhaps more drinking water than they now get from the two wells with the Danish-style hand-pumps in the courtyard. More children may also get a chance to get off the ground and sit on benches – something that the head teacher said had brought much joy to children who had had the experience for the first time in their lives.
As we were leaving, I suggested to my TV colleagues that rather than report ‘the problems of the woman teachers’, they should celebrate their heroic achievements. This, I said, would encourage support for the school from those with the means. We give beggars relatively small amounts, reluctantly, to ease our conscience, but pay huge amounts to see the performance of a star – in whatever field. And these teachers are true stars.
Let me end my account of this profound emotional experience by reporting three pieces of writing from the school:
* On a wall in the courtyard, a faded, red slogan dating back to the 1980s, when the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan was in power:
Pirooz baad siyaasat-e khaarej-ye solh jouyaneh va moteraqi jomhouri-ye demokraatik-e khalq-e Afghanistan
Victory to the peace-seeking and progressive foreign policy of the People’s Democratic Republic of Afghanistan
* In one classroom, 6th grade girls were learning Persian calligraphy, their model a verse which said:
Dar in donya-ye bi haassel, chera maghrur migardi
Soleymaan gar shavi aakhar khoraak-e mour migardi
In this pointless world, why do parade yourself with such arrogance?
Even if you become Solomon, you will eventually turn into feed for ants
* In the school office, a poster from the Afghan Women’s Educational Center, AWEC, with a slogan in Dari, Pashto and English: ‘Let’s teach the children the culture of peace.’
And two more images, this time from the streets: A few days ago, when our vehicle had stopped at an intersection near our office where traffic lights have begun working after years, our deriver, Hamed, pointed to a man on a bicycle who was carrying one child sitting in front of him on the cross bar, and another, much smaller one, in a carton strapped to the rack fixed above the back wheel. For the children, especially the smaller one, it was a precarious position. For the father, it was a sign of ‘gender equity’ – perhaps out of necessity, but that is how we learn most things.
On my way to the TV station this morning, I saw another cyclist with two pots of beautiful geraniums – one kept on the cross bar and the other fixed on the rack behind. Was it a different person from the one with the two kids, or is there only one ‘gender sensitive’, flower-loving man cycling around Kabul? .
Tuesday, 13 May 2003
Today was a public holiday on the occasion of Prophet Mohammad’s birthday. In fact, I was told, the birthday is tomorrow, Wednesday, as registered in many calendars. But the government decided to call it today, because a day off on Wednesday would have meant that the civil servants would have taken Thursday off as well. It is quite possible that now some people will take two days off and have a very long weekend.
Another twist to this tale was that the other day I saw a group of people trying to figure out what the occasion was for the holiday. Some thought it was the 10th of Moharram, or Ashura, which came and went two months ago. Others thought it was the fortieth day after Ashura, or Arba’ein, which was two weeks ago. Most amazing in a country where for more than twenty years, people have been killed in the name of Islam.
The public holiday meant that the streets were quiet, the air clean – relatively – and the mountains beautifully visible. At the office, Parvin and I had our lunch in the garden, on the lawn, under the shade of a tree, looking at the sunshine pouring on Hashem Jan’s flowers. Our bit of the lawn is a bit messy, because our office is relatively new and without a clear feel of authority on the outside, so people have walked across the lawn and destroyed part of it. Some building work has also been going on, but it’s now finished. We should be able to get our garden in good shape soon, with a few benches and tables so you could really enjoy a meal or a snack out in the open – at least on holidays when the blanket of fumes is thinner.
The morning was spent on tidying up my team’s six-monthly plan, three months of which have already been spent. After lunch, I went to the Intercontinental Hotel to attend a meeting of some 170 Afghan journalists – 90% of them men – who are trying to set up a third union. Of the two unions already in place, one was formed under the PDPA, and the other under the Mojahedin. The new one calls itself ‘independent’ or ‘free’, but judging from the political leaflets that were being distributed, political parties will do their best to gain a foothold in it.
I’ve been asked to speak at the conference tomorrow, about training. I finished the first draft of my talk just now, drawing on the discussions in our various training groups. I need to finish it tomorrow, and do a few other things. The week will end soon, and I’ve got a flight on Saturday. Six weeks have nearly gone by just like that. But it’s been enjoyable.
Wednesday, 14 May 2003
For the second day running, we’ve had to tolerate the catastrophe that is the absence of Sahel-e Sabz, on account of the long-overdue renovation of its kitchen. For the first few days, the only impact was that while the kitchen was out of use for cooking rice, kabab and omelets could be made on manqals (braziers) outside the Sahel, and salad and other stuff in a corner of the restaurant. Now, the restoration has spread out of the kitchen and the whole place is shut down.
But there’s an upside to every downside. Yesterday, you remember, Parvin and I had lunch on the lawn outside our office. A bit later, a couple of colleagues who had gone shopping came back with some lovely peaches and a tasty, filled pancake called bolani. We ordered a few of those today, one filled with spinach and the others with potatoes, and some yoghurt.
A quick lunch, before we headed for the second day of the meeting for the establishment of an independent journalists’ union. The meeting today was meant to include a session on journalism training, during which the Dean of Kabul University’s Department of Journalism, an Afghan journalist and myself were due to speak.
Yesterday, although I was not meant to speak at the conference, I went there in the afternoon to see how it was going and to get some idea of the issues I could raise in my presentation. When the afternoon session began, I was surprised to hear my name being announced from the platform as a member of the ‘Presiding Board’ of the meeting. This is a row of distinguished people who sit behind a table next to the podium and lend their weight to the proceedings. Not having been informed of this honour beforehand, and not knowing what the procedure was for such appearances, I did not feel this was something I could do. My fear was that I would be called upon to say something, without having prepared myself.
As it happened, members of the ‘Presiding Board’ were only meant to sit there for the whole duration, and only the chair or his assistant would comment from time to time. The colleagues running the meeting were upset by my refusal to take part, but it simply was not something I could do. I did apologise after the meeting and said that no one had told me anything about this assignment, having been asked to speak in the afternoon on the second day.
I also added that I had not even planned to turn up for the first day and I was there only because my work at the office finished earlier than expected. In the course of this conversation, I also made it clear that I would need about ten minutes for my presentation.
This morning, after three hours of work at the office, I had a decent text on UNIFEM and journalism training. We got to the hotel about five minutes to 2, but the session began at around 2:30. The Dean of Kabul University’s College of Journalism, Dr Kazem Ahang, who was meant to be the first speaker of the session took to the podium and gave a review of journalism education and the ethics of journalism.
The Dean was followed not by the second billed speaker – my name was the third on the list – but by a gentleman whose name was not on the timetable, and who talked about the procedures for electing the new union’s executive council. There were then nominations and presentations, followed by voting which began at 4 o’clock, for which time I had booked a car to take me back to the office. I checked with the main organiser of the event that my presentation would no longer be needed. He said my slot had been cancelled because the election needed to be brought forward.
Funnily enough, I had seen the same person upon arrival and exchanged greetings with him, but he had said nothing about the change of plans. So, while yesterday I was asked to take part in something no one had told me about, today what I had been meant to do had been cancelled, without anyone telling me. I then confirmed my redundancy with the chair of the meeting with whom I had discussed the expected duration of my presentation. He was apologetic and said that even he had not known that I had been crossed out. There is at least consistency and fairness in that. No one seemed to have known what was going on.
I went out to get back to the office, but the car was not there, so I went back into the hall to see the election. After a few minutes, the chair came over to me, apologised a bit more and said that they now did want me to speak, but while people were voting because that would fill the time. I declined the offer, not out of being miffed. If I had known about such a need, I might even have prepared myself to sing and keep the audience entertained while they were putting democracy into action. What I was sure of was that at that time, no one was in the mood to hear about training and editorial standards.
The only benefit of me speaking, I told my friend, would be a degree of fame for me, which was not really what I was there for. I promised to talk about training for them at a later stage, should they still be interested. By good timing, the car had also arrived and I could return to the office, quiet during almost all of the 20 minute drive, wondering what had gone wrong, especially since they had called me twice before to ask me to preside over the voting – another offer I had declined because I could not undertake such an assignment on such short notice.
It’s not that I was personally offended. The people I have met are friends and colleagues; we’re going to be in touch; and I wish them success in whatever they do. My worry is that if they find it so difficult to inform one individual of the changes to what they themselves have planned for him, even when they have direct access to him, surely it must be much more difficult for them to keep the nation informed of what is happening to it because of forces about which my friends may know little, and over which they may have even less control.
But maybe it does not matter so much, after all.