For Young Afghans, History's Lessons Lost?

Sep 8, 2011
Originally published on September 8, 2011 9:37 pm

Afghanistan is, perhaps, the country most transformed by the Sept. 11 attacks. And yet most Afghans have no clear memories of those world-changing events because, according to best estimates, most of the country's current population was under the age of 10 at that time.

This generation of Afghans has gone from having no television or Internet, to having access to a torrent of media information without much experience filtering truth from rumor.

But on the 10th anniversary of the attacks that changed their lives so drastically, young people in Afghanistan — where the median age is 18 — still have a limited understanding at best about what actually transpired.

Take Kabul schoolboy Mujib Zozai, for instance.

"In America, I think one of the buildings crashed," says the typical, if slightly precocious, 13-year-old, wearing his best blue shirt and a Beatles haircut. Among his classmates at Nadera high school, Mujib seems to be the only one who has some idea about the events of the day.

Mujib wants to be a pilot when he gets older, but his parents insist that he study to be a doctor. Though he's at the top of his class, and is quite inquisitive, Mujib had no idea that Sept. 11 engendered the American invasion. Why does he think the U.S. military showed up in Afghanistan?

"Because in Afghanistan, 10 years ago was a bad period, and they want to help, and they help with Afghanistan people ... and they want to reconstruct our buildings ... and improve our knowledge," he says, speaking in rapid but broken English as his teacher nods in approval.

Mujib also doesn't know much about Osama bin Laden. He says the man may have once visited Afghanistan, but was also in Iraq and Pakistan. Despite the widespread perception, there's no evidence that bin Laden visited Iraq.

The Complexities Of Recent History

Mujib's teachers mostly seem to share his idea that the American arrival in Afghanistan was a good thing. Afghans employed as teachers might be expected to feel that way since the number of schools and students has skyrocketed in the past 10 years.

But that doesn't mean the students are learning much in school about the past 10 years.

Mujib's teacher, Sayed Khumar, has been teaching history for 35 years, but he says even new textbooks this year don't say much about the past two decades. That may seem a large omission: the civil war of the 1990s, the rise and fall of the Taliban, Sept. 11 and the U.S. invasion.

But most of the key heroes or villains of that era are still alive, and many of them are in parliament or the Cabinet of President Hamid Karzai. Not all the people in positions of leadership agree about how history will be taught.

Jaleb Mubin Zarifi, the school's principal, has a different opinion from many of the teachers, though.

"Since the Americans arrived here, we've seen more bad than good," he says.

Zarifi wears a pakool, the wool pancake-shaped hat favored in the north. He was a fighter with the Northern Alliance, which worked with U.S. support to overthrow the Taliban in 2001. But Zarifi's ideology, he freely admits, is almost identical to the Taliban's.

"Whether it's Karzai, or the Taliban back, or any other regime, it will not change what we teach, which is the Quran and Islamic principles," he says.

Zarifi thinks the Taliban are racist, discriminating against Tajiks like him, but otherwise he has no quarrel with them. He says democracy is un-Islamic. He supports a death penalty for blasphemy or anyone who converts from Islam. And he believes immoral behavior by women causes cancer and AIDS.

"The laws [the Taliban] implemented, for instance, about women. They asked women all to wear hijab [head covering], and that's a good thing. We know now that the women are not wearing hijab, and look what's happening: There's cancer and AIDS everywhere in Afghanistan," says Zarifi.

Advances In Women's Rights

On the other side of town, in the Macroryan neighborhood — considered modern for Kabul and, thus, ultramodern for Afghanistan — teenage girls are starting an after-school English class on a recent day.

Ghazlan, 18, is the most outspoken in the class of 12 students. The other girls have scarves covering their hair, but Ghazlan — who gives only one name — is wearing a full chador, a long black garment like a nun's habit, leaving only her face visible. She was 8 years old when the Taliban regime fell, just young enough that she wasn't subject to the extreme restrictions on women.

"I just know the Taliban hit the women and beat them a lot," she says, but she does not recall when the Americans arrived in Kabul.

"I don't have any memories, but I know that freedom came in our country, that the women are free to go everywhere," she says.

But Ghazlan doesn't connect the American arrival with greater freedom for women — she thinks America came to Afghanistan with its own agenda — though she has a vague idea about the attacks in New York and Washington.

"I just saw the tower[s] on TV, that the Taliban broke them ... and I feel bad for them," she says, though television images of what happened on Sept. 11 didn't reach most Afghans until months later.

Likewise, she has heard only the most recent news about Osama bin Laden, killed in May by a U.S. commando team.

"They fly from Jalalabad to Pakistan, they catch bin Laden, that's why they came. Their dreams come true, and now their work is finished — that's why they are going back [withdrawing troops]. I think they are very selfish," she says.

Ambivalence Toward America

But most of the class seems to agree that the Americans have helped Afghanistan, though there's a lingering perception that the U.S. is an enemy of Muslims.

Samira is a 16-year-old student.

"I read about Sept. 11. Osama bin Laden killed some people in America. But I have question with American government: Why do they kill people in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and some other Islamic countries? They kill a lot of Muslims," she says.

Samira, who also gives only one name, is from Ghazni province and says she's not sure if the Americans are helping there: Violence seems to have increased since they came, she says, with no end in sight.

In the boys' class next door, 10-year-old Karhan Sraush has heard a little about events the year he was born.

Karhan says he's heard that some airplanes exploded in America 10 years ago, but he has no idea if that was connected to Afghanistan and the U.S. presence in his country.

He's got clearer ideas about what might happen when the Americans leave.

"We are safe now because American forces, they spent a lot of money to improve our security. It's a shame if they leave here," says Karhan. "I think the Taliban [will] come back when the American forces go. ... All the people of Afghanistan will be killed. And I don't like war." Karhan, like most Afghans, has never experienced a single day of peace in his country.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, host: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host: And I'm Robert Siegel. Since the attacks of 9/11, Afghanistan has changed remarkably, but the median age there is now just 18 years old and that means much of the country has no adult memories of the attacks or their aftermath.

NPR's Quil Lawrence reports on what young people there think about why the U.S. Army came to Afghanistan and why they might soon be leaving.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLANGING)

QUIL LAWRENCE: Mujib Zozai is a typical, if a bit precocious, 13-year-old skinny Kabul schoolboy in his best blue shirt and Beatles haircut. He wants to be a pilot when he gets older, but his parents insist he should study to be a doctor, still the premier aspiration of any Afghan mom and dad.

Though he's at the top of his class and quite inquisitive, he's got a very rough idea of what happened to change history 10 years ago.

MUJIB ZOZAI: In America, I think the - one of the plane - or was a crash and the - in Afghanistan, the Taliban and they govern in our country and they lost - the people of Afghanistan lost their everything, like their brother, sister and their father and everything and they saw a lot of information in this 10 years ago.

LAWRENCE: Mujib doesn't know much about Osama bin Laden. He says the man may have once visited Afghanistan, but he was also in Iraq and Pakistan. Just for the record, there is no evidence that bin Laden ever visited Iraq.

Why did the Americans come to Afghanistan 10 years ago?

ZOZAI: Because, in Afghanistan, 10 years ago, it was so - bad period and they want to help and they helped with the Afghanistan people and Afghanistan will move day by day.

LAWRENCE: Just because they wanted to help?

ZOZAI: Yes. And they want to reconstruct our buildings and E-T-C. And they want to improve our knowledge and E-T-C.

LAWRENCE: Mujib's English is a bit too fast and he uses abbreviations.

A-T-C? What's A-T-C?

ZOZAI: It means et cetera.

LAWRENCE: Oh, et cetera.

Mujib's teachers mostly seem to share his idea that the American arrival in Afghanistan was a good thing. Afghans employed as teachers might be expected to feel that way since the number of schools and students has skyrocketed in the past 10 years.

But that doesn't mean the students are learning much in school about those past 10 years.

SAYED KHUMAR: (Foreign Language Spoken).

LAWRENCE: Sayed Khumar has been teaching history for 35 years, but he says even the brand new textbooks this year don't say much about the past two decades. That may seem a large omission: the civil war of the 1990s, the rise and fall of the Taliban, 9/11 and the American invasion.

But most of the key heroes or villains of that era are still alive and many of them are in parliament or the president's Cabinet. Not all the people in positions of leadership agree about how they history will be taught.

Take, for example, young Mujib's school principal.

JALEB MUBIN ZARIFI: (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: Since the Americans arrived here, we've seen more bad than good, says Jaleb Mubin Zarifi. He wears a pakool, the wool pancake hat favored in the north. Zarifi was a member of the Northern Alliance, which worked with U.S. support to overthrow the Taliban. But his ideology, he freely admits, is almost identical to the Taliban's.

ZARIFI: (Through translator) Whether it's Karzai or the Taliban back or any other regime, it will not change what we teach, which is hadif, the Quran and Islamic principles.

LAWRENCE: Zarifi thinks the Taliban were racist, discriminating against Tajiks like him, but otherwise he has no quarrel with them. He says democracy is un-Islamic. He supports a death penalty for blasphemy or anyone who converts from Islam and he believes immoral behavior by women causes cancer and AIDS.

ZARIFI: (Through translator) The laws that they implemented, a good example is, for instance, about women. They ask women all to wear hijab and that's a good thing. And we know now that the women are not wearing hijab and look what's happening. There's cancer and AIDS everywhere in Afghanistan.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN PLAYING)

LAWRENCE: On the other side of town, teenage girls are starting an after-school English class in a Macroyan neighborhood, which is modern for Kabul and that means ultra-modern for Afghanistan.

Eighteen-year-old Ghazlan is the most outspoken of the class of 12 students. The other girls have scarves covering their hair, but Ghazlan is wearing a full chador, a long, black garment like a nun's habit, leaving only her face visible.

GHAZLAN: I just know that the Taliban hates the women and they beat them a lot.

LAWRENCE: So do you have any memory from when the Americans came? You were eight years old.

GHAZLAN: I don't have any memories, but I know that freedom came in our country, that the women are free to go everywhere.

LAWRENCE: But Ghazlan doesn't connect the American arrival with greater freedom for women. She thinks America came here with its own agenda, though she has a vague idea about the attacks in New York and Washington.

Do you know anything about September 11th, 2001? Does that mean anything to you?

GHAZLAN: I just see the tower on TV on that day. The Taliban broke them and through their helicopter and I feel bad for them.

LAWRENCE: She's heard only the recent news about Osama bin Laden.

GHAZLAN: They fly from Jalalabad to Pakistan. They catch bin Laden. That's why they come and their dreams come true and now their works are finished. That's why they are going back. I think they are very selfish.

LAWRENCE: But most of the class seems to agree that the Americans have helped Afghanistan, though there's a lingering perception that the USA is an enemy of Muslims.

SAMIRA: Samira and I'm 15 years old. I read about September 11th, that Osama bin Laden killed some people in America, but I have questions with American government. Why did they kill some people in Iraq and Afghanistan, Pakistan and some other Islamic countries? They killed a lot of people, a lot of Muslims in some countries. (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: Samira breaks into Dari. She's from Ghazni province and she says she's not sure the Americans are helping there. Violence seems to have increased since they came with no end in sight.

In the boys' class next door, 10 year old Karhan Sraush has heard little about events the year he was born.

Do you know anything about September 11th, 2001?

KARHAN SRAUSH: No, I do not, teacher. I think there was a explode by airplane in America.

LAWRENCE: Does that have something to do with Afghanistan?

SRAUSH: I don't know, teacher.

LAWRENCE: He's got clearer ideas about what might happen if the Americans leave.

SRAUSH: We are safe now because of American forces. They spent a lot of money to improve our security. It's a shame if they leave here. I think the Taliban came back and then the American forces go to their - in their country.

LAWRENCE: Are you afraid of that?

SRAUSH: Yes.

LAWRENCE: What do you think would happen?

SRAUSH: All of people of Afghanistan will killed and I don't like war too much.

LAWRENCE: Quil Lawrence, NPR News, Kabul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.