Monday, April 25, 2011

Easter Geography 2011: Slovak Agnus Dei Stamp

Slovakia's post office has combined the imagery of traditional Catholic Agnus Dei (lamb of God representing Christ as the ultimate Passover sacrifice) with the Slovak tradition of an Easter lamb made out of egg whites and butter creme along with Easter candies.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Three Cups of Tea... and a Coffee Cake of Lies (Why the Book Does Not Make Sense)

During my individual preparation and general training for Afghanistan I read many books.  Some like Descent into Chaos: The U.S. and the Disaster in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia were excellent while others like The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan After the Taliban were the so-so products of American war tourists who realized too little too late that their personal golden cows were not divine. However, the one book that everyone recommend, and biggest golden cow of all, was Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson.  Despite being given copies I refused to read it.  Why?  Because it did not make sense to me.  I knew building schools would work in some areas and not others.  And now we know the book is full of lies and the charity appears to be a personal money making machine from Greg Mortenson.

Foreign Policy has a good article on why "we all wanted to believe the book" so I will skip commenting too much on wishy washy nature of the group think (Hat tip: TDAXP).

What I will comment on is why I felt Three Cups of Tea had a bogus message.  

First, let me qualify that statement by saying that some Afghans are more than willing to have their daughters educated.  At the risk of doing generalizations, Hazaras are widely known for giving their women more freedoms than what one thinks of when they think Afghanistan.  The schools I visited that had girls were Hazaran.  These girls were bright and willing to learn.  Tajiks and urban Uzbeks also tended to support or at the very least not be opposed to girls education.  One can easily build schools among these groups.  However, with the exception of the Taliban-aligned Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), these groups are not the problem and live in areas where the war will not be decided.

Hazaran school girls.  Photo by Catholicgauze
The problem lies with the prominently Pashtun Taliban movement.  While there are pro-girls' education Pashtuns, once one leaves the cities of Kabul, Kandahar, and Ghazni one will be hard pressed to find a vocal supporter.  The truth is the vast majority of Pashtuns do not care about girls education because it is an issue outsiders push at the expense of more locally pressing issues.  A school is built by Coalition Forces when locals want a well or a clinic.  The school is then officially administered directly from Kabul by the Karzai government which will not provide funding for supplies or even the teacher.  The NGOs which support the creation of schools are also too afraid to send workers and supplies into these schools because of the lack of security.  Meanwhile agricultural, medical, and security problems remain unaddressed.  So when the Taliban come to burn the school no one stops them because they are indifferent/happy to see it gone.  In rural Ghazni district I had to be part of a shura where an elder asked the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) why the PRT was coming with school supplies when their PRT-built clinic was empty and his daughter and grandson died the past night as the daughter was trying to give birth.

Boys schools are not safe either.  The Kabul-based government does not care too much about the schools in the conflict zone and has pretty much ignored them.  The Taliban do not ignore them, though.  They have shadow secretaries of education who ensure western-built schools teach from pro-Taliban curriculum.  The shadow education system is more than willing to kill any teacher who stands in their way.  Donations to schools in southern Afghanistan come with the very real possibility that the funds will be used to support the Taliban's goal of rebuilding their Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

Women's education in Afghanistan is a real goal for good.  However, it is being easily reached in the parts of Afghanistan that will not sway the war.  The south, where the Taliban and the war are being fought, will decide if Coalition Forces stay and go and if the Taliban return.  It is there in the south where the women's education is needed... but it is there where people have real concerns and girls' education can wait.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Afghanistan Deployment Dictionary

While deployed I learned a variety of terms of geographic and cultural nature which soldiers use while in Afghanistan.  Some of these terms were used in Iraq while others were new.  For those interested, here is a self-made dictionary of these terms.

GOIRAAbbreviation for Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.
1.  The official government headquartered in Kabul.

Hajji:  Literal translation means "one who goes on Hajj (Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca)" but can be used in Afghanistan or Iraq as an honorific.
1. Hajji can be used to refer to anything Afghan/Iraqi be it a person or place.  Not necessarily positive or negative.  Example:  "There are a bunch of Hajjis standing outside."  "I went to the Hajji store because their prices are better."
2.  Hajji can be used in a way to emphasize poor Afghan/Iraqi design.  Example:  "Don't plug in your computer there!  That is a Hajji outlet!"

Muj:  Short for mujahadeen, literally meaning "holy warrior."  Taliban/al Qaeda in Iraq/al Qaeda/Haqqani Network/other insurgents will refer to themselves as mujahadeen.
1.  Muj is used to refer to insurgents.  Example:  "We got into a fight against a couple of Muj down the road."

Old Americans
1.  Term used by Afghans to refer to Americans who came to Afghanistan from the 1950s to the 1970s as part as development projects.  As the "Old Americans" always traveled in small groups or alone no one seems to mention anything bad about them.  Usually the "Old Americans" were fascinated by everyday Afghan life, which confused many Afghans as everyday life to them is nothing to be fascinated about.  Most stories dealing with "Old Americans" are light hearted.  Example:  "When I was young an Old American came to my village to help build a well.  He kept taking pictures of our qalats (mud homes).  He used all his film taking pictures of the homes and I know film was not cheap in Afghanistan!"

Pakistan:  The country
1.  Used by Taliban, normal Afghans, and Americans alike to describe, somewhat justifiably, the root of all evil.  Even the Taliban blame Pakistan for problems.  Examples:  "An IED blew up our road!  Where did the IED come from?  Pakistan!"  "Who controls this war against the Afghan people?  Pakistan!"  "Good people make good countries.  Bad people make Pakistan." (last quote originally from Rifftrax but heard in some areas of Afghanistan)

Used as an adjective to refer to the Taliban alternative to GOIRA and GOIRA positions.  Examples:  "Shadow court."  "Shadow governor."  "Shadow school."

Monday, April 04, 2011

Ivory Coast 2011 Civil War Maps

While I am still in Afghanistan and the Libyan War remains unguided another war is heating up.  The Ivory Coast is expierencing its second civil war as the forces loyal to President Laurent Gbagbo are fighting against the Republican Forces lead by Alassane Ouattara, who is backed by much of the world including United Nations, African Union, the European Union, and the United States.

The situation was laid by the end of the First Ivorian Coast Civil War which saw the current de facto split of the country between the Christian south lead by President Gbagbo and the Muslim north, "Republican Forces" represented by Ouattara.  Ouattara was initially declared the winner of the December 2010 presidential election but the results were invalidated by the southern controlled Constitution Council.

Map of election results and line of demarcation from the first civil war.  From Maps with the News.
Low to medium level of violence occurred after the invalidating of the results with the much better armed Republican Forces reenforcing their position around the demarcation line.  However, in the last week Republican Forces have pushed deep into the south.  The religious angle of the conflict (currently in a tool stage) has erupted with massacres of Christians by Muslim Republicans to include the targeting of priests.

Army Recognition has created a Google Maps mashup showing the position of Gbagbo (red) and Ouattara (green) forces as well as clashes, French forces (blue), and other areas of interest.  The map has been repeatedly updated and should be followed for any breaking events.

View Ivory Coast combat situation civil war in a larger map

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Afghan Diary: Where the Djinn Live

Islam is a religion with a complex cosmos that shares much with older forms of Judaism and Catholic-Orthodox Christianity.  In many parts of the Islamic world, Muslims believe in a universe with daily events full of saints, demons, angels, and miracles.  This is a much different cosmos than what more reformist branches of Judaism and Protestanized Christianity believe in (though many Pentecostal-type Christians are starting to migrate to traditions and beliefs of the Catholic-Orthodox cosmos).

One of the most common otherworldly creatures in Islam are the Djinn (aka Jinn aka Genies).  These are more than the magical people who live in lamps according to Dinseyifed Americanization of Arab tales.  These are beings created out of smokeless fire (as compared to clay/mud for humans and light for angels).  According to the Qu'ran's Surat al-Jinn, Djinn are creatures which have free will.  While in Islam, Satan is a Djinn, Djinn can be hostile, neutral, or even friendly.

From reading parts of the Qu'ran, Hadiths (stories of Mohammad), Islamic fairy tales, and books on Islam I knew that Djinn are suppose to live in another dimension.  However, it was not until my recent conversation with a Kuchi Pashtun tribal elder that I realized how strong belief in Djinn were and where Djinn fit in our world.

Below is a recalling of my conversation I had with an elder through a Pashtun interpreter.

Me:  Let's go take a walk up those hills and survey the area.
Elder:  We cannot go there.
Me:  Why not?
Elder:  Because the Djinn live there.
Me:  The fire beings?
Elder:  Yes!  The smokeless fire spirits.  You, a Christian, know and believe of the Djinn?
Me:  I have read about them.  As a Catholic my faith is open to the possibility of other creatures.  How do you know the Djinn live there?
Elder:  They use to live where our tribe settled (over a hundred years ago) and built the village.
Me:  So why did the Djinn move?
Elder:  There were too many encounters between people and Djinn.
Me:  I thought the Djinn live in another dimension (this took the interpreter a minute or two to convey)
Elder:  They do.  But our worlds are so close together that it is possible for cross over.
Me:  Were there any bad incidents?
Elder:  Most Djinn were kind or neutral to us.  Some were mean though.  Many Djinn left because they were afraid of our ancestors because our ancestors were all warriors.  Others left because we would accidently step on their children.
Me:  Stepping on smokeless fire babies is not good for Kuchi-Djinn relations.
Elder:  Yes, yes.  Very true.
Me:  So do the Djinn leave you people alone?
Elder:  Most do.  We consider them our neighbors and friends.  Some are mean, just like how some people are mean, but we respect them and they respect us.
Me:  So you never go to the Djinn place?
Elder:  No.  When a baby is born we take some gold, bones, and some of the child's hair if possible and put it in a bag.  We take the bag and leave it on the Djinn's hills.
Me:  Why?
Elder:  So they can celebrate the child's birth with us.  The gold is a gift, we give them the child's hair so they can see part of the child, and bones because in the Hadiths the Prophet Mohammad once visited a tribe of Djinn and brought them a bag of bones.  When the Prophet's followers asked why he had a bag of bones the Prophet replied, "Because Djinn eat bones."
Me:  Sounds like you have some good neighbors.  So why can't we go up the hill together?  Would not the Djinn think I am your friend because I am with you?
Elder:  The Djinn do not travel much.  They may think you are Soviet or British.  I do not want to put you at risk, my friend.
Me:  Thank you.  I tend to prefer distance between me and other worldly beings anyways.