Music for Troubled Times

On Sunday evening, my husband and I attended a concert meant to broaden our horizons — Three Letters from Sarajevo, by Goran Bregović, a diversely talented Serbian-Croatian musician. For much of the evening, I found my thoughts drifting to the horrific shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue and the lives senselessly ended.

Each of the “three letters” to Sarajevo was a composition representing the three major monotheistic religions. Three astounding violinists, hailing from Belgrade, Tunisia and Israel, performed evocative solos. My amateur ears heard notes as delicate as the beating chest of a songbird, as melancholic as old photographs.

For the most part, Bregović, let the music speak for itself. He did, however, introduce the program with an admission that he worked from a place of privilege for, as a composer, he knew how well high notes paired with low notes, how beautifully fortissimo went with pianissimo. He lamented that many politicians did not have that same privileged view of the world.

The evening started with this note of philosophy, haunting vocals and a transporting curation of songs played by the aptly named Wedding and Funeral Band. I could see, by the way people clapped and stirred in their seats, that many of the songs were familiar tunes from the old country. By the end of the night, people danced in their seats and in the aisles. A child bounced jubilantly on a lap. A woman tossed a scarf in celebration.

Out of a pained history, came beautiful music. Perhaps this is what we should be demanding from ourselves, our neighbors, our leaders — more nights in which our flawed humanity can devolve into beautiful, unified raucous.

On Valor and Vitality – Lessons from Senator McCain’s “Battle” Against Cancer

On Valor and Vitality

8.27.18

Senator John McCain’s “maverick” politics placed him among the most intriguing contemporary legislators. His policies and feud with the current president continue to inspire support and criticism from the partisan masses. But Senator McCain’s last year of life also inspired conversations about how we cope with illness, both individually and collectively.

In July of 2017, it was revealed that Senator John McCain had a particularly aggressive brain tumor, glioblastoma multiforme (GBM). In the medical world, GBM is an acronym that evokes a sense of dread and resignation. Of the many different shades of tumors, GBM is of a merciless ilk. Long-term survivors are rare.

His family’s announcement that he had “chosen to discontinue medical treatment” set off a new wave of commentary and sympathy.

Since last July, Senator McCain’s diagnosis had elicited a host of reactions in the public sphere and provoked meaningful conversations on illness and healthcare. Our understanding on these issues is ever evolving and, hopefully, maturing.

Here are three lessons to be learned from Senator McCain’s diagnosis and our collective response.

  1. Cancer is not a test of valiance.

Shortly after news broke of Senator McCain’s diagnosis, President Barack Obama tweeted: “John McCain is an American hero & one of the bravest fighters I’ve ever known. Cancer doesn’t know what it’s up against. Give it hell, John.” His well-intentioned tweet utilized the language we have learned to turn to when we hear someone has cancer. Fight. Brave. Battle. We turn people into soldiers because we want them to win, to beat the odds, defeat cancer. But as screenwriter/producer Josh Friedman described with raw and personal eloquence, “it’s okay to be a coward about cancer.” Some will be overwhelmed with fear and uncertainty. Those who do not survive were not weak.

Candidate Trump callously declared McCain earned his “war hero” title simply because he was captured. “I like people that weren’t captured,” he said. But heroes can be captured in war. And in life, even the strong can fall to disease. While valor is admirable in the face of illness or combat, it should not be demanded.

  1. Medical treatment does not always seek to cure.

Every day we are one step closer to understanding that a cure should not always be the goal of medical treatment. Hospice care and palliative care are vital branches of modern medicine that seek to improve quality of life in whatever remaining time a person has in this world. They can maximize mobility, comfort and quality of time with loved ones.

Some disease processes are simply evasive of curative therapy, especially in the context of advanced age. The scenario is common – at the behest of family, invasive procedures are performed on people who are overwhelmingly unlikely to benefit from them. Why? Because death and dying are difficult to discuss. We are suspended in denial about our mortality and the limits of modern medicine. We become vulnerable to politicized threats of “death panels,” fearing that life-saving treatment will be withheld from us when we are still viable.

Death and dying are normal. Functionally, financially and emotionally, it behooves us to make space for the tough conversations about end of life expectations. Dr. Atul Gawande explores this urgent need gracefully in Being Mortal.

  1. Healthcare must not be a partisan issue.

McCain’s eleventh hour thumbs down vote, just two weeks after brain surgery, on the repeal of Obamacare came with a flurry of speculation. Did his diagnosis and surgery bring him to cross party lines with his vote? McCain had been a vocal critic of Obamacare, as many are. High premiums and deductibles made the Affordable Care Act far from ideal for many Americans. But in the end, McCain took a more nuanced and practical view than many of his colleagues, insisting that any replacement not pull the rug out from under those with the greatest need. And John McCain, who had his share of medical scars, understood that our inescapable mortality makes meaningful healthcare a necessity for us all.

Rest in peace, Senator McCain.

The Throes of History

The following semi-fictional piece was originally published in Italian on March 7, 2016 in la Repubblica. I wrote it in honor of International Women’s Day.

In 1979, when Soviet tanks rolled into Afghanistan to begin a decade long invasion, my parents decide to stay in the United States and grow roots like the elm tree that shades our backyard. It is too dangerous to return to their homeland, they admit. Instead, they send my grandmother a photograph and she coddles my cousin, Jameela, born just three months before me.

“Are you happy you left Afghanistan?” I ask my mother, a civil engineer who will never work in her field, as she braids my hair into one proud plait that falls between my shoulders.

“You ask as if that is a simple question,” she says, wistfully.

I do not ask again, too busy singing nursery rhymes with other four year olds or eating orange slices during a half time break, my shorts green from an afternoon on the soccer field. I see my father, eyes tired from a two hour commute and clothes spotted with kitchen grease, scour the newspaper for word on the homeland.

They anxiously check the mailbox. The envelopes, blue onion skin paper with “par avion” stamped on the outside, sometimes bring good news. Other times, they reveal the death of an uncle, a home damaged by explosives, a plea for money. Even then, the letters don’t come often enough.

Jameela has memorized multiplication tables and recites prayers before sleep just as I do. Her two braids are tied with satin bows and she shines her patent leather shoes every day. As much as I hear about her, she is nothing more than a character in a book – the distance between us too great.

I spend my summer in the library, my back pressed to the spines of books. I ponder what Antoine de Saint-Exupery means in The Little Prince, when he writes: “What makes the desert beautiful…is that somewhere it hides a well.”

With rockets whistling overhead, Jameela hears stories from One Thousand and One Nights. Her family prays, like Scheherazade, to live another day. The Soviets will leave Afghanistan soon, they believe, and peace will return.

I learn to drive in a cemetery, my foot nudging the gas pedal as I circle the dirt road surrounding weather-beaten tombstones. I look, sidelong, at my father and he nods, a hand on the steering wheel to guide me through a turn.

Jameela’s parents watch her disappear into a burqa, forlorn. They reject two suitors, praying the Taliban will fail and there will still be time for her to go to school. Hush, they tell her, for the Taliban rage at the sound of a woman’s voice or the clicking of a heel. Women are sin, the Taliban say. It will be over soon, her parents promise but their promises are as thin as the blue paper on which they pen their sorrows.

I pack my bags to drift through the Alhambra, the architecture of a toppled regime. The blood is long gone here while Jameela is still in the throes of history.

Jameela’s family flees to India so that she can enroll in school, ride a bicycle and learn to negotiate a rickshaw fare. She sits with other teenage refugees and wonders if this country will be their new home.

I sit in a medical school classroom when the twin towers are struck down. The world, in one synchronized swiveling of heads, turns its attention to Afghanistan. For the first time in our lives, Jameela and I are connected by history. It is the first time Jameela feels noticed.

I press my stethoscope to the small chest of a child, his eyes looking up at me with a mixture of fear and amusement. I smile to put him at ease. You’re perfect, I tell him and his mother exhales a breath of gratitude.

Jameela’s family, deflated but hopeful, returns to Kabul since the Taliban have retreated into the shadows. She is studying to be a doctor in a country desperately in need of healing.

I watch the presidential debates, wondering if the billionaire will make good on his promises to keep people like Jameela or my parents out of this country. Jameela watches the female news anchor announce that the Taliban refuse to join peace talks. She thinks of the crumpled burqa in her dresser drawer.

And while I sit with my feet on an ottoman, a new story taking shape on my computer screen, Jameela presses her stethoscope to the chest of a girl who may one day become a doctor, a pilot or a president. Little girl, Jameela whispers, with a tenderness and confidence that brings the child’s mother to tears, you’re perfect.

-Nadia Hashimi

Guest Post: Teaching Students in Afghanistan via Technoloy

Lea Gabay is a recent graduate of San Francisco State University’s Masters program in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages). She has taught English online to female Afghan students through two organizations AIWR, (www.aiwr.org) and SOLA (www.sola-afghanistan.org)

“I learned if I stand, everyone will stand, other women in my country will stand.

When I read these words from Roya, an aspiring female writer in Afghanistan, who writes for a mentorship program called the Afghan Women’s Writing Project (www.awwp.org), I am reminded of my role as a teacher: I seek to plant a small seed in the mind of my students in the hope that they will one day feel empowered to raise their voices against injustice.

I began teaching English lessons online via Skype to female students in Afghanistan four through a US-based non-profit organization called AIWR (Alliance for International Women’s Rights) (www.aiwr.org). AIWR’s mission is to support women’s rights and promote female empowerment through English language learning in areas where women’s access to education is limited. AIWR partners with a vocational training center known as KIMS (Kandahar Institute for Modern Studies) (www.theafghanschool.org) located in Kandahar, Afghanistan, to offer English classes online to male and female students at this center.

Little did I know that this experience of online instruction would eventually morph into an idea for a project that combined English language learning and a digital tool called VoiceThread (www.voicethread.com), which is used for online voice recording, to enable the student to talk about her life as a woman in Afghanistan.

For this particular project, I worked one-to-one from August to mid-October with a female student whose name is Mahida (name is changed to protect her identity) twice a week for 50 minutes. During that time, we focused on the topic of Identity. The goal was to encourage Mahida to reflect on her different identities and to make a decision about the use of specific words to describe herself by having her write a poem called “Who are you?” and record it with VoiceThread. The poem started with the phrase “I am….”. It was then up to Mahida to choose how to complete that sentence. Interestingly, the first sentence of her poem was “ I am an Afghan girl.”

There were also other opportunities during our sessions to talk about Mahida’s life in Kandahar: She told me about teaching maths at the university, the educational system in Afghanistan, her interest in writing poems about women’s rights, and her desire to study abroad in the future.

I was very eager to hear more about her experiences and really enjoyed teaching her; however, there were many challenges that came about during our lessons which significantly impacted the amount of contact that I had with Mahida. These were mainly due to the weak internet connection. Indeed, it was quite rare that I was able to teach a whole lesson without the connection dropping at least two or three times. Although this was for me a cause of great frustration, for Mahida this was really a chance to connect with someone from another part of the world and speak in another language regardless of the connection issues.

In spite of the many unanticipated pitfalls throughout this piloting stage, this was an extremely enriching experience; enriching because I was able to teach a very brave young woman who took the tremendous risk of participating in this program to learn English. I also learned about the many hurdles of living in a conflict-ridden zone where educational opportunities for women are few and far between and where local traditions continue to dictate gender roles and women’s status in Afghan society. While I may never truly grasp what it is like to be a woman in Afghanistan, this project taught me to listen and allow for Mahida to talk about her situation without making any kind of judgment.

I saw this experience as a way of building a relationship with Mahida, supporting her, providing her with a space to share her views and stories with me, and more importantly learning from her. To me, Mahida represents hope for the future of Afghanistan.

How the Afghan Friends Network is Opening Doors

For an uplifting read, check out this blog post highlighting the eagerness students have for education in Afghanistan and a group of folks looking to help them realize their dreams.

Taken from the Afghan Culture Unveiled website:

Humaira Ghilzai is the co-founder of the Afghan Friends Network, a non-profit that partners with local educators in Ghazni Province of Afghanistan to help students in grades 7-12 with math, physics, chemistry, biology and English. AFN currently has two Khurasan Learning Centers (KLC) for girls and one for boys. They serve over 750 students.

 

 

Discussing the Bacha Posh on Wisconsin Public Radio

Here’s the audio to my hour long chat with Kathleen Dunn of Wisconsin Public Radio from June 1st, 2015. I really enjoyed the comments/questions from callers on comparisons to the Sworn Virgins of Albania and growing up with the knowledge brothers are more important in America.

 

PEARL and College Freshman

2015 First Year Experience Conference

I had the privilege of participating in the 2015 First Year Experience Conference in Dallas, Texas this past February.  It was a chance for me to talk with college administrators and educators who are committed to providing the best possible experience for students adjusting to college life and academics.  This was an especially exciting opportunity for me because I’m a big believer in the lasting impact teachers can make on individual lives.

My first year read was Chinua Achebe’s THINGS FALL APART, which was a brilliant selection.  College is a time when young adults are pushed to look within just as much as they are encouraged to learn about the world around them.  It’s a unique and important period of intro- and extro-spection.  Here’s my talk on how PEARL fits in with the first year theme.

Rage for Farkhunda

Afghanistan

On March 19th, 2015 the streets of Kabul ran red with Farkhunda’s blood.

She lived a pious life.  They called her a heretic.

She loved the Quran.  They claimed she burned it.

She tried to speak in her own defense.  They silenced her.

She wanted to dress modestly.  They tore off her hijab.

She wanted to live.  They took her life.

Farkhunda was a daughter, a sister, a friend.  She was a teacher, a Muslim, a citizen of Afghanistan.  She was a twenty-seven year old woman with a full life ahead.  We should rage in her name, not because she was Afghanistan’s daughter but because she was a human being and deserved to live out her life.

The videos of the gruesome lynching chronicle the obliteration of this woman.  To watch it causes such a visceral, gut-wrenching reaction.  To watch it makes one mourn not only Farkhunda, but also the humanity that was utterly lost on that street.

But let’s not allow our grief distract us from our rage.  And there are so many reasons to rage.

Armed with a rumor that Farkhunda had burned a page of the venerated Quran, a frenzied mob attacked her.  This was mob violence in broad daylight on a busy Kabul street.  Armed police officers watched.  What does this mean?  If Kabul’s police officers do not rise to the defense of their city’s citizens, what hope is there for a civil society?  How are any of Kabul’s citizens to feel safe?

The mob passed judgment on this woman without bothering to question whether or not she had committed the crime.  Why?  Because they felt righteous in their cause.  They were defending the honor of their beloved Quran.  Herein lies the faulty thinking of the mob: Why should the Quran or the Almighty need their defense?  How arrogant each assailant is to think that Allah should require the help of a mortal?  Why do these people not believe in protecting God’s creations (Farkhunda) as equally as they would protect His words?  Religious teaching has failed somewhere along the way. The people have overstepped their authority in a deadly way and fail to see the hypocrisy of their actions.

A woman attending Farkhunda’s funeral cried out that when she looked out at the sea of men’s faces, they all looked to her like Farkhunda’s killers.  That’s because Farkhunda’s killers were not hooded militants. They were young and old.  They wore pants, tunics and sweatshirts as any everyday person wears. They were ordinary citizens. The women of Kabul took to the streets chanting: “Today it is her, tomorrow it is us.”  Couple this with what they must surely be thinking when they look at the men around them: Yesterday it was them, today it could be him.

The Afghan government has taken important first steps.  Arrests have been made.  Some of the attackers and some of the police officers who failed to intervene are in custody.  They have the privilege of due process, a privilege Farkhunda did not have.  The respected mullah who condoned and even justified her murder has since fumbled his way through a back-peddle but he is alive and well and walking about freely.  This is a reason to rage.

Niazi, the Kabul mullah, is just one example of the self-proclaimed religious authorities that poison Afghanistan’s minds.  In a country that is physically, psychologically and economically devastated by thirty plus years of war, there is little education. Violence and despair are commonplace.  Enter the hardline mullahs, the parasites who feast on such opportunity to inflate themselves.  We know who they are.  They are on television, on the radio and haughtily presiding over their mosques.  We all know what they talk about. They find justifications for the sexual abuse of children (aka child marriage). They encourage the subjugation of women. They suppress the intellectual development of the nation by pushing religion over everything else.  They tell people to focus on the next life while this one is spent in a state of misery and abuse.

Where was Niazi when a five year old girl was raped in a masjid?  Where was he when army commanders boasted about sexually abusing hundreds of children?  Conveniently and blasphemously silent.  Shame on these men who have brought such disgrace to a religion that begins and ends with “peace be upon you.” They are Afghanistan’s boogie men.  Against them, we should rage.

I see hints of Kabul’s shifting attitudes.  For the first time, women hoisted a coffin on their shoulders and carried Farkhunda’s to her final resting place.  Men formed a circle of support and protection around the female pallbearers. The mullah Niazi was turned away from Farkhunda’s funeral because he had, just days ago, applauded those who would so valiantly defend the Quran.

Farkhunda has inspired Afghan women to speak out.  She has inspired calls for justice.  She has inspired men to champion their sisters, their wives, their mothers.  She has, at least for this moment in history, galvanized those in Afghanistan who refuse to let their streets be ruled by mobs and those who are thirsty for humanity and civil society after decades of war and destruction.

People of Afghanistan – it is time to reclaim your country. You have given the bullish mullahs authority by listening to them.  You can just as easily take their authority away. They are not appointed by the government.  Many do not have a basic education, let alone credible religious accreditation. They hold no divine authority. They do not speak for God. They do not walk on water. They do not glow with ethereal light.

Lest some misinterpret my words – there are certainly some religious figureheads who are enlightened and righteous and guide their disciples to a life of grace. But others are corrupt and psychopathic. Some fall somewhere in between, just like all people.  It is the responsibility of the community and the believers to think about what kind of mullah they are choosing to nod their heads to.

The masjid is the house of God and should be reclaimed in the name of Islam.

Let us on the outside looking in share our rage and hope that our anger will keep the world’s attention on Afghanistan. Let us keep the pressure on for this tragedy to be a catalyst for change.  The people of Afghanistan continue to take to the streets in rage and for good reason.  Let the streets run red with anger before they run red again with the blood of another innocent and a society lost.