Recalling Rumi in Afghanistan

I wrote this piece before the suicide bombing at the Kabul airport. The tragic event puts a sharper point on the need to shift how we operate in Afghanistan. A long war has come to a close. The shape of peace remains to be determined. 

For many of us watching the situation in Afghanistan, there is a sense of shock. The impact of 20 years of war, the might of the most powerful military aided by troops from other powerful nations, and hundreds of thousands of lives lost, two trillion dollars spent, four US presidents of both parties, and things seem to have returned to much the same as they were at the start of the conflict. All seemingly in the blink of an eye. It is a reminder of the limits of power and the fleeting nature of victory. Afghanistan is an old land that has seen many empires roll through. It weathers time differently. 

There is plenty of blame to go around as we replay the many missteps. And yet, Afghanistan is just one place in the larger global landscape of conflict. These dynamics lie under the surface in many places, waiting to erupt when the time is right. We must learn to not repeat the story that played out here. 

Afghanistan was made to bleed but not enabled to heal. Trauma unhealed resurfaces. And when it does, it eats more than itself. Holiday Phillips offered three different options for engagement that ring true here: 

Privilege says I could help, but I don’t need to.

Courage says I will help, you need me.

Love says I must help, we need each other. 

In the conflict in Afghanistan, the US held the first and the second stance of superiority and benefactor but not the third stance of seeking mutual wellbeing. If we did, we might have felt a greater need to help Afghanistan to succeed and prosper. This is how the US engaged Europe after WWII. There was a desire for Europe to return to a place of wellbeing. Perhaps, despite the animosities of the war, there was a sense of shared identity with Europe. Afghanistan feels foreign to Americans. The people there who we are keen to protect are our citizens and the Afghan translators and colleagues who we got to know and who worked alongside us and who became friends. It is hard to abandon them. And, as so many of us watched, they ran alongside the departing US planes desperate to hold on to us as well. 

So, the key to caring is relationships. It may feel too late for that now but the Afghans play the long game and so can we. We can extend the hand of friendship to provide aid and help Afghanistan succeed rather than take the usual tact of enforcing punishment that deepens trauma and resistance. If the Taliban didn’t break after decades of punishment, they wouldn’t likely soften under sanctions. We need a new approach and if we widen our outlook it is there to be seen, right there in Afghanistan. 

Afghanistan after all is the birthplace of Rumi, the renowned Islamic poet who wrote many profound expressions of love and compassion. The country was once a center for Greek and Buddhist learning that melded knowledge from East and West. It was a major hub on the silk road, where civilizations met for trade, not war. In my earlier years, when I collected National Geographic magazines, I was transfixed by the images of the people of Afghanistan and marveled at the immense diversity in a small country. These different identities are part of Afghanistan’s roots too. Roots that can regrow as well when cared for. War is not the only narrative that this ancient land holds.  

At the end of the day, Afghanistan is a lesson in the limits of war and the path to peace. Rumi wrote, “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” We need to find these fresh fields of possibility. 

Every ending is also a beginning. It is an opportunity for change, a reason for hope, and a call to lean in rather than bow out. 

Across the Divide — Bridging Belief and Belonging The Best of Enemies [DVD] : Taraji P. Henson, Sam Rockwell,  Babou Ceesay, Anne Heche, Wes Bentley, Nick Searcy, Bruce McGill, Robin  Bissell, Danny Strong, Fred Bernstein, Matt Berenson, Robin Bissell,

I watched a film named The Best of Enemies. It is based on a true story about a Black organizer facing off against a Klan leader over school integration in Durham, NC back in the 1970s. The film revolves around a mediation process that is to end in a vote to integrate the schools or not. The default stance of a few representatives who will cast a vote is not in doubt but there are a few swing votes each side aims to influence. The stakes are high for the Black community. The White school is well resourced. The Black school is not.

Ibram X Kendi points out that at the heart of racism are systemic inequalities. When these systems are changed, the fight to preserve them usually evaporates. Few people in Durham, NC today would try to challenge the integration of schools. What’s behind the fight is fear and bias. But how do we shift this?

The Best of Enemies film is instructive in how this shift can happen. The Klan leader is devoted to the racist fraternity because it provides him with a sense of belonging and a sense of superiority. The debates on inclusion only harden his stance and his allies on the Klan play to intimidate the White swing voters. Yet the battle is won on another front (spoiler alert). The Klansman himself flips sides. He’s won over by an act of kindness by the Black organizer on behalf of his son who has Downs Syndrome and is at a facility that the father can barely afford. It is a source of deep helplessness and pain. The unexpected kindness from “the enemy” cracks his hard but brittle shell of separateness and superiority. 

In the book Humankind that I am reading, the author points out that empathy cuts both ways. It can bond us to our tribes and harden us against the other. Cracking this wall of who belongs in our kin group is the challenge. 

In the film, a White business owner who is a designated voter refuses to be intimidated by the Klan or be pressured to vote against integration. His stance is rooted in a relationship he has with a Black colleague who he fought alongside in the war. Discriminating against people who put their lives on the line for him was unconscionable.  

I spent my early years at a boarding school that had kids from different ethnic groups across India — religion, caste, and linguistic identities. We became close friends and are still closely connected some 40 years later, though we are scattered across multiple countries. Furthermore, many of my classmates married outside their identity groups, which is rather unusual in India. This exposure to difference helped us claim a larger identity for ourselves. 

So, if we want to defeat systemic racism, we need to indeed change systemic policies but the way we can best do this is to create friendships that pave the way to change. What divides us is not perhaps belief as much as belonging.