The enemy in Afghanistan is poverty
Published 5:26 pm, Wednesday, October 21, 2009
The author of The Kite Runner came to Fairfield University last week. Professor Philip Eliasoph, founder of the Open VISIONS Forum at the university told the audience that, Dr. Khaled Hosseini's visit couldn't have been timed better.
"It is a tale of three cities," Eliasoph said, noting that the first city was Washington, D.C., because over the last few days, President Barack Obama, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Cabinet and even Gen. Stanley McKrystal and his staff on closed circuit were discussing the future of our Afghan policy. The second city was Kabul that had witnessed that very morning a horrific bombing that killed 87 people, and the third city was here in Fairfield, where one of the most famous Afghans in the world was going to address the audience.
Rev. Jeffrey P. von Arx, S.J. Fairfield University's president, explained that Hosseini's lecture was sponsored by the Jacoby-Lunin Humanitarian Lectureship in collaboration with the Bennett Center for Judaic Studies. Frank Jacoby, a Jewish immigrant from Hungary in 1895, became a successful Bridgeport businessman and in 1951 started the lectures. His son-in-law, Arthur Lunin, guided the program until his death in 1999. These lectures were founded to promote peace and understanding without regard to race, color, creed or ethnicity. "This annual lecture," von Arx said, "has been part of Fairfield University's cultural offerings to the community for over several decades." He then acknowledged Fairfielders David and Debbie Zieff and Dr. Henry Katz who were in the audience, noting that David Zieff and Henry Katz are Trustees of the Frank Jacoby Foundation who made the evenings' lecture possible.
Hosseini stepped onto the stage to a rousing and extended applause, indicating many people were familiar with his books, The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, and/or familiar with The Khaled Hosseini Foundation whose goal is to contain the human suffering in Afghanistan.
Hosseini shared with the audience a Kabul of the 1970s, when he grew up there with his family. Instead of death, destruction and displacement, "Kabul in those days was a peaceful city. It was the hub of cultural and artist life, " he said. Acknowledging it wasn't on a par with Teheran or Beirut, he said, "But it was a favorite place for tourist and a beautiful place to grow up." He is grateful that he had that experience, saying, "There were no Soviets, no mujahideen, no Taliban, no bin Laden, no rocket attacks, no drug trade. The state was very peaceful and my life was socially very rich."
He was thankful his diplomat father was transferred to Paris in 1976 because shortly thereafter, the troubles in Afghanistan started. A communist coup took over and many members of his family were arrested and killed; the Soviets invaded and his father knew that they couldn't return to their homeland as planned. It was at that point the family applied for asylum in the United States. Hosseini and his family became political refugees, "And that is where my credentials for the whole issue of refugees came from," he told the audience.
It was in the U.S. that he studied and became a physician, married and is now raising two children. He said he feels blessed that he has had such a wonderful life, "and that was before I had written books, and became successful beyond my wildest dreams." He said with a laugh that he thought only his wife and a few cousins would read his books. "I never dreamed that one day I would be flipping through the channels and see my name as one of the answers on Jeopardy." The audience really enjoyed that.
The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) asked him to be their spokesman in Afghanistan and he was thrilled because he felt a connection to his Afghan countrymen who had become uprooted and living in squalor. After visiting Afghanistan and seeing how families were digging holes in the ground for shelter, he was inspired to create The Khaled Hosseini Foundation. Its primary goal is funding projects that benefit those who suffer the most, women and children. "There are thousands of widows and children who need shelter," he said. The women need economic opportunities and the children need education. "These are the things that give people control over their lives," he continued while showing slides from his last trip.
"It cost $1,500 for one family of refugees to have a home." His foundation provided enough funds last winter for 71 families to have homes and they are almost completed which means they will have a home before winter. They also are providing funds for education.
At this point he sat down for a discussion session with Ellen Umansky -- professor or Judaic Studies whose latest books are Four Centuries of Jewish Women's Spirituality, and From Christian Science to Jewish Science -- and Gita Rajan, professor of English. Her latest book is New Cosmopolitanisms: South Asians in the U.S.
Rajan prompted, "Great literature has been able to raise aesthetically very complicated and complex questions. For instance, Dickens' great novels talked about child labor. "� In The Kite Runner you close the book with the thorny question about the lack of human rights for children. As part of literature you have made us think about these things. Can you talk out loud about what gives you the kind of insight to awaken readers and say, `this is the next issue, let's talk about it.'"
Hosseini responded, "It was a story that started as a pebble that grew into a big thing. It was during the process of writing about the two boys I realized it was a bigger story; a story about a culture, about how Afghans relate to each other in the family, how they die, how they cope with the odds."
He said that he realized that despite himself, he was actually making some kind of a statement and hoped that it gave people a "window into a culture that in the wrong hands was demonized."
Umanski, referring to a comment from The Kite Runner, asked, "Were there things in your life that changed the course of your life?"
Hosseini pointed out that there were many. "If my father had not been assigned to a post in Paris, I probably would have been drafted into the Afghan army," he said.
He also told how his wife found the short story of The Kite Runner in the garage and was amazed to see her reading it and weeping. He reread it, decided it would make a good novel, saying, "And if she hadn't cleaned the garage that day I would not be here sitting on this stage talking and saying, `That's the way life works.'"
Eliasoph asked Hosseini how he advised the United States Government when he was asked to testify before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
He said that even in its heyday, Afghanistan was at the bottom of global development. So how, he asked, after 30 years of successive wars, could it take only five or six years to build a functioning government, a strong economy and a stable society? "It is not a 100-yard dash. It's a marathon. It is in our interest that Afghanistan is a stable country. What happens there affects the whole area."
Hosseini said the United States will not win in Afghanistan militarily. No one ever has. What is needed is investment in infrastructure. He was clear that a military to counter the insurgency is necessary, but counter insurgency isn't just about military. That would be "throwing the baby out with the bath water. The number one killer in Afghanistan is poverty. If people have water to drink, food to eat, a shelter over their heads and jobs to provide for their family they will be less influenced by the voice of the radicals."