Michael W. Albin
Director of Acquisitions, Library of Congress (retired)
The classroom was cold, damp, and cheerless, like the mid-January day. Two benches of ladies looking at me curiously and wondering what this foreign man, this American, was doing in their class. So I told them.
I said that Kabul was a city I knew pretty well—fifty years ago—but hadn’t visited since. I told them, through the translator, Mr. Rahmani, that I was here in their country on a kind of pilgrimage to the place where I first learned about Afghanistan and developed a life-long desire to return.
After explaining that I once taught English in Afghan schools way back in the 1960s as a Peace Corps volunteer, and assuring them how reading, writing and basic math will change their lives, I took a seat on the back bench to watch the teacher review the homework.
The students excelled, as I suspected they would. They were giving up one hour per day for the opportunity to learn. Tuition costs were covered by Roqia Center as part of its overall education initiative sponsored by Kabultec, a small but mighty non-profit operating in Afghanistan as Roqia Center.
Roqia was founded over fifteen years ago with the multiple aims of promoting adult literacy, assisting orphans, and advancing the participation of Afghan women in public life.
A new venture for Roqia’s founder-director Nasrine Gross is hosting Americans during short research or speaking visits. Forty years of war and insecurity have isolated ordinary Afghans, especially young men and women, from contact with Americans. The new project bids to bring Afghans and Americans together in cultural and social settings in order to break through this barrier of isolation.
My trip to Kabul was one of Roqia’s ventures in this direction. It brought me in touch with dozens of Afghan leaders and academics. At the American Institute of Afghanistan Studies, I addressed several dozen students and professors on the topic of my current research interest, the study of the tribal chieftains across the region from Afghanistan to Morocco.
On January 18, 2017, two days before the inauguration of Donald Trump, I took part in a panel at the Afghan Strategic Studies Institute on the future of Afghan-US relations in the new administration. Senior members of several Afghan government ministries were among those present– and there was a TV interview.
During my visit, I addressed two separate audiences, one political and the other academic, on the topic of the dual role of the US president as chief executive of the United States and as head of his political party, a topic of much interest in Afghanistan these days when executive traditions are evolving. At Parwan University north of the capital city, I addressed the provincial governor and university faculty on a variety of topics of interest. Lively discussion accompanied each of these presentations.
This schedule kept me pretty busy, but there was time for visits to libraries at Khurshid and Rana Universities. Two highlights of my library visits were attendance at a business meeting of the Afghan Book Society, a fledgling organization made up of librarians, booksellers, archivists, and members of the public with an interest in books and reading. A special treat was my visit to the Afghanistan Center at Kabul University to renew acquaintance with the redoubtable Nancy Hatch Dupree, founder and premier inspiration of this exceptional library-archive-research center-and literacy hub.
An unexpected bonus of the trip was the personal hospitality I enjoyed during my two-week stay. I was quartered in the home of a scholar whose family roots run deep in Afghan history. He and I spent many hours discussing Afghan and American history, politics, and culture. His family and friends added their own personal accounts to our lively discussions. Time spent in their company was enough to repay the expense of the trip.
There were some disappointments too. Security in the city is dicey. Deadly blasts claim dozens of victims at disturbingly regular intervals. The threat of kidnapping also kept me close to home during those rare free moments when I might have strolled the neighborhood or grabbed a cab to historic sites. These are the little pleasures we took for granted in the good ole days.
Kabul in January is not one of the world’s foremost vacation destinations. City streets and avenues which in warmer seasons would have been lined with trees in leaf, turn to slush, and the cityscape is unbecoming. The itinerary called for a day trip to the historic Panjshir Valley and the tomb of Ahmad Shah Masoud. The trip was cancelled for scheduling reasons. Fortunately, I was able to visit the Kabul residence of Ahmad Wali Masoud, Ahmad Shah’s brother and politically knowledgeable spokesman for the Masoud Foundation.
A big disappointment was that the trip to Roqia’s flagship adult literacy class which had to be cancelled because of impassable streets. I was especially looking forward to this visit after years of hearing of the activity at Kabultec’s fundraisers held each autumn in the Washington, D.C area. As consolation prize, I spent a delightful day at Roqia’s headquarters in a suburb about ten miles south of the capital. The office is located in a private home, where I was introduced to new Afghan recipes at breakfast and lunch. The beautiful sunny day with temperatures in the 40s afforded opportunity for a walk in the surrounding hills where I got a sense of the Afghanistan of old. Well managed fields and surrounding family compounds guided the eye up, up into mountain passes leading to the Panjshir Valley.
In sum, I returned from my trip filled with insights about the country, its people, economy, politics, and a sense of having fulfilled Roqia Center’s goal of connecting Afghans and Americans on a personal, grassroots level. Thanks to Nasrine Gross and the Roqia staff for making it happen.