Monday, April 09, 2007

rebuilding: it's about more than concrete

Ann Jones, who has written extensively on women's rights, spent four winters volunteering in Afghanistan after American president George Bush proclaimed that the country had been liberated from the Taliban & the women there had thrown off their burqas & gone back to school. What has come to be the familiar modus operandi of the United States--invade a nation about which we know little, fabricate its past, & issue outlandish propaganda about subsequent glorious improvement thanks to Westerners--is well documented in Winter in Kabul (Picador, 2006). Jones' clear-eyed, angry reportage is the appropriate & necessary response to what she witnesses in a country hamstrung by both its cultural traditions & a long stream of invaders who have contributed mightily toward its instability.

The book is divided into three sections: "In the Streets," "In the Prisons," & "In the Schools." The first details American insistence upon fighting communism in the 1980s by supplying & training Islamic militants; Jones (as others like Mahmood Mamdani, author of Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, & the Roots of Terror, have done) points out that most Islamic extremists & terrorists can be traced to the Afghan War. Hundreds of millions of dollars in aid went to the mujahidin during that time--$700 million alone in 1989--& in one of many instances of dirty deception, the U.S. paid Chinese manufacturers to make Soviet-style weaponry to cover up American involvement in the arms pipeline.

"In the Prisons" is an utterly maddening & wrenching account of victimhood. Jones visits the Welayat, where incarcerated women she at first mistakenly identifies as bundles of rags in the semi darkness huddle on the frigid floor of a common room. The guards sit on the two beds, yet are not that much better off than their wards--poorly paid, they await the visitors' gifts of raisins, soap, & wool sweaters with equal need. Through an interpreter named Zulal, who initially balked at the impropriety of going to a prison, Jones interviews the prisoners & quickly learns most have been charged with morality offenses. A typical case: a man ends his marriage by saying "I divorce you" three times to his wife; she later reweds. Husband #1 finds out about the second marriage & shows up with the police to charge the woman with bigamy. She's sentenced to eight years. Almost all of these "criminals" have been locked up for "illegal" marriage, for running away from domestic abuse, for being raped, or for being forced by family members into prostitution. When the author heads to the Ministry of Women's Affairs to seek legal support, she asks the lawyers there to go to the Welayat.

"Now the discussion was vigorous and firm. Zulal translated: 'They say they cannot look into these cases because these women are bad women.'
'Ask them what makes them think these women are bad.'
'They are criminals.'
'What makes them think they are criminals?'
'They are in prison.'
'Ask them if they will go to the Welayat just once.'
'No, they cannot go there.'
'Why not?'
'It is a prison.' "

In the section on schools, Jones recounts her experiences training high-school teachers in a country without the means to buy textbooks or construct schools, & in a city where receiving three hours of electricity is a lucky day indeed. She writes of earnest adult students with "old-fashioned idealism" who are "too young to remember what peace looked like, but they want to do something to help their country attain it." Soon, however, Jones is trying to get modest funding for her teaching program & pondering where all the much-ballyhooed U.S. aid is going. She grows increasingly aware of how the game typically works: the profit-making contractors connected to the U.S. government receive massive deals with little or no competitive bidding, & most of the money fails to reach the people it's earmarked to help. She calls it phantom aid & deplores how seventy percent of the time it's given with a capitalist catch--the recipient is required to purchase donor-made products with the money. Jones' request for twelve thousand dollars is repeatedly denied: as an acqaintance at USAID later explained, she made the mistake of asking for too little. Americans like big, they like profit, & they like to put up impressive concrete structures to show they're fixing a country. They're not so good at asking citizens themselves what their needs are, or sticking around to finish projects once the glamor of press releases & news stories has faded. "Foreign aid...seems to ordinary Afghans something that only foreigners enjoy, living like kings in their big houses, driving around in their big SUVs." In 2005 Laura Bush visited Afghanistan for six hours--yes, hours-- to assist women in their struggle for rights, then pledged $3.5 an English-language prep school for the children of internationals.

After Winter in Kabul, yr. correspondent will next delve into another of Ann Jones' books, Looking for Lovedu (Vintage, 2002), which details her mission to locate a legendary matriarchal tribe in Africa said to live by the principles of tolerance, compassion, & peace.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

You write yet another important essay presenting a book everyone should know about and read. In your concise prose, the essence of corruption and bankrupt capitalistic "ideals" are exposed with such impact that one feels enraged ... at a time when everything the Bush Administration does is enraging. Too bad that that bulldog Cheney can be sent out to divert attention from the truth of our Middle East disasters with lies like the recent story told by him on the Rush Limbaugh radio show: "Before we invaded Iraq, there was a link between Sadaam and Al Qaeda." He should check with his own CIA on that one.

Bravo, auk wrecks & ark larks!

April 9, 2007 at 11:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your summary of Jones's account of the lives of women & children in Afghanistan is enraging. When women are considered property and educating girls frivolous or evil, what hope is there for improvement? And the US aid $ is clearly a recycling of profit to American companies and nothing to do with the needs of the Afghanis.

April 10, 2007 at 1:48 PM  
Blogger Mary Sheehan Winn said...

it's all a bunch of bull and it makes me mad Grrrrrrrr

December 22, 2007 at 8:40 PM  

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