Thursday, April 28, 2005

Reflections on Walls in Afghanistan

My nephew forwarded an email from a friend of his who is now working in Afghanistan because El Jefe knew him also. I am excerpting parts of the email, which was the transcript of his speech at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Kabul to share his intriguing observations about walls and volunteerism. His "nom de plume" is Kabul Corporate Monk #14.

As I drive around Afghanistan, I am amazed by the sheer number and variety of the walls. Most are made of carefully assembled mud, with mud and thatch daub for a cornice to protect the wall from early erosion. Others are made painstakingly of fired bricks. In Kabul, I have seen walls made from materials I've never seen anywhere else: Hesco barriers, made of felt enclosed in wire mesh and filled with dirt. To be completely inclusive, I admit that the US Embassy is the only edifice I've seen anywhere that has steel plate walls. And, of course, those steel plate walls, like all of the Hesco barriers, is adorned with the most appealing spirals of razor ribbon.

But as amazing to me as the walls in Afghanistan are the carefully tended areas inside the walls, on the few times that I have been able to catch a glimpse inside. From both observation and reading, I understand that within Afghan culture, there is a whole world inside the walls - largely comprised of the women and children -- that is deeply intimate and intended to be separated from the world outside the wall...

One common characteristic I have observed in countries that have lots of walls is that there is usually a great disparity between the conditions inside the wall and those outside. The inside courtyard will be tidy and well-decorated, while the areas immediately outside the wall will often be filled with garbage and bear the look of total abandonment. The territory inside the walls and the territory outside the walls might as well be in different worlds.

In contrast, there are not so many walls in America. Obviously there are some walls, but far more common are the wide open lawns with sidewalks and pathways leading right up to the front door. If there are walls, they are more commonly little fences that even a child can see through or over - intended more to keep a dog inside than a person out. In America, there are not such large and clear boundaries between what belongs to me and what belongs to us all.

Very often in America, it will be difficult for an observer to tell exactly which property belongs to which person. Whole expanses of green grass and flowers will be planted and tended and nurtured as if they were all the private domain of a single individual, when in fact the spaces are the common property of many neighbors, many of whom do not even know the names of the others. Many of the most valuable features of America can be summed up in the way people care for public and private space. In America, the private and public worlds can easily blend together.

There is a parallel in America to the physical openness I have just described in the way family and the broader society are treated by individuals. Obviously Americans have families, and in the vast majority of cases those families are deeply treasured by their members... Just as private yards in America begin to blend into the public areas of the larger community, so too do relationships of connectedness and commitment - at least in the best parts of America -- extend far beyond the bounds of family and clan.

It is my judgment that it is this phenomenon of Americans' blurring the lines separating what is distinctly theirs and what belongs to the larger community - whether we are talking about real estate or relationships - that explains one of the greatest national character traits of America: our volunteerism. Americans have, since our early years as a nation, shown a tendency to involve ourselves in activities and commit ourselves to groups whose boundaries extend far beyond the divisions of property rights and bloodlines. It is this tendency, I believe, that is at the core of America's power and greatness as a nation. It is because so many of us are willing to merge our lives and treasures with those of others of our countrymen with whom we have no connection other than trust in a common vision that we have been able to achieve so much more than could have been expected from a motley group of immigrants from every corner of the globe.

As we have torn down the walls of division between us - both physical and personal - we have been able to tap ever deeper reservoirs of common strength and ability. And we tap these reservoirs in the selfless acts of volunteering to be part of something that is more than ourselves...

My presence in the country and at the Embassy, which enabled me to make the decision to come and speak, is itself another act of joining. I am an employee of the United States Government now. But previously, I was an officer in a large corporation. I took a 90% reduction in pay to come take this job. Did I take this economic hit because of my great love of Afghanistan? Well, if I knew that I would come to love Afghanistan as much as I do, then maybe the financial sacrifice would have been worth it, but really, I hardly knew anything about Afghanistan when I sought this job. I gave up my other job - at least temporarily - because I wanted to join in a project that was important to America - the reconstruction of Afghanistan -- and being a part of that larger project became more important to me than money, time with my family, and arguably even life itself.

In arts, education, religion, and every other form of human activity, Americans exhibit an impulse to join others that is unmatched anywhere in the world. Americans even have "associations of associations." The source of this energy must come from the experience of uprooting that occurred at the founding of America, and that still occurs frequently today. The early settlers of America were brave souls who had often rejected their former homelands and unavoidably left their families or at least their extended complex of relatives also behind. And this was no temporary parting. When America's founders left the shores of England and Scotland, and then Holland and later Ireland and Germany, they had no intention of ever returning, often despising the country they put behind them.

This attitude of permanent rejection made America's settlers different from the settlers of many other countries. Throughout Latin America, large numbers of Spaniards came to find wealth and adventure. Even though many of them lived the entire rest of their lives in the Americas and their descendants became the mixed-blood progeny of Spaniards and indigenous peoples, the intent of most Spanish settlers was to return to Spain when their fortunes had been secured. And, among the French settlers, though fewer in number than the English and the Spanish, and lacking the same mercantilist approach as the Spanish, were attitudinally the opposite of the English. French settlers loved France and sought to bring it with them to the new world and to create in their new home a microcosm of their old home.

And, what is the significance of these attitudinal differences. Well, for the Spanish, they had no incentive to create anything new, because they fully expected to return and, for the French, they wanted only to replicate what they had left behind. It fell to the English and Scottish settlers to create a totally new culture in their new nation, because they had so fully and irreversibly ripped themselves from the family and cultural moorings that had tied them to their former homelands.

We human beings are social creatures and will inevitably seek comfort in associational structures. Uninterrupted, we will preserve those associational structures that are most familiar to us: family and clan. Perhaps only in the chaotic Diaspora that formed America was the activation energy of an entire culture reached so that the bonds of association that had bound us for eons loosened sufficiently that new connections based on common interest, vision and hope could form. In the world of today with digital communication and inter-continental jet aircraft, the irreversibility and permanence of any immigration is lessened and a move to America is not at all the same experience of separation as it was 300 years ago. Yet, because of the radical pace, freedom and bombardment of experience that is inescapable in the modern American experience, the immigrants of today are forced to find new associational hand-holds to stabilize themselves in their new world, and their clutching for new relationships that are different from any that they knew before makes them more distinctively American, even as they are being jarred out of their skins by distinctly American cultural frenzy. Our recent immigrants are adopting the same patterns of associational innovation that have characterized America's new arrivals for hundreds of years.

In the two books I have read that involve Afghan-Americans, West of Kabul, East of New York and The Kite Runner, the reader is able to see this tearing of the protagonists this way and that by the anchored rootedness of their Afghan selves and the demands for a new identity placed on them by their American experience...

The blessed consequence of all of these new connections that come through diverse associations that are the fruit of all of our joining is that we are forced to tear down the walls that separate us from others. I may not care about the trash that is outside of my house if all of those whom I care about are living within my compound. But, in the real situation in which I live back in Houston, I have a deep concern about the conditions of a whole vast territory around my house because this territory houses not just my family, but the boys in my sons' scout troop and on their sports teams and in their schools. I care about a much larger piece of geography because that geography houses a much larger group of my relational treasures than would ever occur if most of life occurred within the walls.

In America, litter is picked up, flowers are planted and trees are trimmed that do not belong to any one of us, but they belong to us all. We Americans volunteer in a multitude of ways - always in an effort to reinsert ourselves into the cocoon of associational familiarity from which we have been ripped as a nation torn away from its heritages - and in so doing we create new connections and loyalties and commitments that glue us together more tightly as a nation than countries populated by people undisturbed for centuries...

America will remain for years into the future, I believe, a nation of constant re-generation, fueled by people who are engaged in a frenzy of new connection-building. And the most fruitful and majestic expression and source of these new connections will be the constant energy of volunteerism which has set us apart as a nation since our founding.

Americans have torn down their walls and can never erect them again -- and still be America. And I, as a guest in Afghanistan, rejoice as more and more Afghans invite me into their lives outside the walls.

by: Kabul Corporate Monk #14

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